IFLScience Meets: Beluga Expert Dr Valeria Vergara On Translating Cetacean Communication


Rachael Funnell

Social Editor and Staff Writer

clockAug 6 2021, 17:20 UTC
IFLScience Meets: Beluga Expert Dr Valeria Vergara On Translating Cetacean Communication

Vergara has had ringside seats to the “canaries of the seas,” as belugas are known for their chatty nature. Image courtesy of Dr Valerie Vergara

We recently caught up with Valeria Vergara, PhD, programs director at Ocean Wise, a globally focused conservation organization working to restore the world’s oceans, who is something of an expert when it comes to beluga whales. Having been researching and listening in on these animals for many years, Vergara has had ringside seats to the “canaries of the seas,” as belugas are known due to their chatty nature. However, as she explained to us, communication for these enthusiastic conversationalists is coming under threat from human-made noise.

Belugas sit among some of the ocean’s most charismatic marine mammals. Their enhanced intelligence means they're capable of forming lasting bonds with their fellow beluga buddies as well as family members. Thanks to a series of live cameras set up and maintained by, you can take a peek at what some beluga whales are getting up to right now.


The bulbous-headed cetaceans are as fascinating as they are bizarre, using the oil-filled melons that sit atop their heads to assess their environment and communicate with pod mates even when ocean traffic is making the conversation that much more difficult. As our oceans jam with manmade boat traffic, sound passing through the water column for miles is interrupting the beluga way of life. As Vergara explains, young whales are known to exhibit their own beluga “babble talk” as they try to learn vocalizations from their parents and wider pod. Should these formative years be drowned out by human interference, their chances of survival and reproduction could be greatly hindered by the valuable learning they lose out on during this time.

As well as exposing the catastrophic interruption manmade noise is having on the development and social lives of beluga whales, Vergara's work is uncovering new insights as to how these animals communicate. One particularly exciting but still emerging element of her work focuses on the recognition of unique vocal signatures from whale to whale, which could be pivotal in the research of the animals as well as uncovering a novel layer to their enhanced cognitive capabilities. Belugas have certainly proved that they can be discerning when it comes to sound, as was evidenced in a successful rescue attempt that saw an ice breaker free a pod of trapped whales by luring them out with classical music. Usually, sea ice is a vital source of protection for belugas, as was highlighted in Arctic Sea Ice Day which takes place on July 15 annually, but in this unique case a pod got caught too far from the open ocean and needed a little helping hand.

Belugas are famous for the bulbous “melon” that sits on their foreheads, an oil-filled organ that helps them to both send and receive information about their social circles and environment. By sending out clicks and whistles, belugas equip themselves with what Finding Dory likes to term “the world’s most powerful pair of glasses”. By interpreting sound, they can determine the size, shape, speed, and distance of other animals in the ocean, and sometimes even glean insights into the internal structure of physical objects.  

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