A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Believing in Belugas

Barnum & Belugas

The captivity industry’s assault on the world’s cutest whales.

Believing in Belugas
From ancient mythology to modern reality.

How the Beluga Business Began
When P.T. Barnum first put belugas on show.

My Life with the Belugas
A former trainer at SeaWorld talks about what it’s like for belugas in captivity.

Smart, Chatty and Chirpy – and That’s Their Problem
A neuroscientist talks about the brains and smarts of belugas.

Visiting with Belugas in the Wild
A scientist meets some solitary dolphins who want to make friends with tourists. That’s not a good idea!

The Legal and Moral Issues
If the Georgia Aquarium gains the permit it seeks, it will open the door to a flood of captures from the wild.

What You Can Do

Contact Information for the Georgia Aquarium.

Questions for the Georgia Aquarium and the NMFS.

Notes and Talking Points for letters, e-mails, phone calls and general discussion


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From ancient mythology to modern reality


(Second in a series on belugas in captivity.) Among the creation myths of the peoples of the Arctic is the story of a young woman who leaves her village one day to collect eggs, and returns wearing a whale skull on her head like a hat.

The spirit in the skull takes her out to sea, where it is transformed into a beluga whale called Keiko, who marries the young woman. Her brother persuades her to come back home, and when she is back on land she gives birth to a baby beluga.

When the baby beluga is soon too big to live in a bucket in the house, she takes him out to the ocean. But soon after, when he’s fully grown, the young beluga is killed by hunters. The woman’s family, angered by the killing of her son, goes to war with the hunters.

And this, we are told, is how war first came to humankind.

Belugas may be our best hope for establishing language-based communication with other animals.More recently, a medieval Christian legend tells of a white horse being persuaded to carry the cornerstone of the local monastery across the frozen waters to the White Sea island of Solovetsky so that a new chapel can be established. The ice breaks before the horse has reached his destination, and the horse is drowned. But the archangel Michael finds the stone and delivers it to its place in the new chapel. And then the horse is reborn as the first of all belugas.

In 1074, the German monk Adam of Bremen journeyed to the Arctic and wrote about the relationship of the people there to these white whales (“beluga” is the Russian word for white):

All people in the Northern countries are Christian, except those who migrate along the sea coast near the Polar ice. It is said that that they have great wisdom and that they use magic to communicate with one another even when they are far apart in the world. In addition, they sing songs with powerful words in a murmuring voice to persuade great whales to come close to shore. These people know many things firsthand, which the Bible tells us are the talents of wizards.

beluga-petroglyph-090312Tales of belugas stretch back thousands of years. A 6,000-year-old rock carving in northwest Russia shows a woman, perhaps a shaman, communicating with a beluga whale. The carving has been interpreted in many different ways – perhaps she’s blowing a kind of flute, or speaking with a long tongue or tapping with a stick. But it’s generally agreed that the depiction is one of communication.

Today, many scientists believe that belugas may be our best hope when it comes to trying to establish language-based communication with other animals.

Musician Jim Nollman, who studied belugas along the White Sea for more than 10 years, writes about the Russian scientists who study belugas at a small log tower near where the whales often come to feed, and compares his own experience to what he sees in the rock carving of the woman with the beluga:

beluga research station-by-jpek--090312

The local belugas visit the feeding area in small groups of five to fifteen animals, always led by an advance scout who signals the rest of the pod if the fish are present and the humans aren’t acting too offensively.

Having witnessed the bold investigative qualities of a beluga scout in action, I am led to conjecture that the beluga petroglyph (above) may commemorate a singular relationship between one shaman and a particularly friendly scout. This premise is based on a personal experience with another species of whale. When I worked with orcas for eight summers throughout the 1980’s, it was never “the whales” who interacted with us, but two specific animals, a mother and her son, who came close to our boat almost every night about an hour after dark, over a significant eight year period.

For centuries and millennia, the peoples of the Arctic hunted belugas for food. But they never lost the respect and companionship they felt with and for these white whales. And while the beluga populations of North America have suffered so terribly from massive hunting and environmental degradation that they are now officially a threatened species, the belugas around the coasts of Russia are still relatively healthy.

Unfortunately, this status has placed them right in the crosshairs of the American and international captivity industries that see belugas, with their cute, dough-boy faces, delightful vocalizations and gentle behavior, as an ideal addition to their marine circuses and zoos.

No wonder the Georgia Aquarium is attempting to persuade the government’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to issue a permit so they can import 18 more belugas from Russian waters to aquariums around the country to put them on display and use them to breed as many more as possible.

Next: When P.T. Barnum First Put Belugas on Show