Many of us start each new year with plans to improve something about ourselves or the way we do things. I have lately been thinking about the seemingly impossible task of living in the present while being better at planning out the future. At the same time, I want to draw from fond experiences in the past and hold on to those without dwelling in the past. While this goes much deeper, I will just use a simple example: I have fond memories of guitar music and friends singing together either around a fireplace or huddled in someone’s student dorm room. When running summer camps, I have often missed this activity and felt it would be nice if I could create that memory for the kids I work with. I am no musician, but I did take a few guitar lessons in college and I can recall a few simple chords. Thus, I presently practice playing guitar, planning to sing some songs with the kids at camp in the future.
In search of songs to fit the theme of marine science camps, I came across the famous “Baby Beluga.” It’s a fun little song with easy chords and a catchy melody — perfect! Except while humming the tune, I started to think about the words and soon realized: the song is full of lies!
I did a little reading about belugas, especially in Alaska. We have five populations of beluga whales. A population in biology is defined as a group of animals that breed with each other, thus forming a genetic pool. The most commonly known and easiest to observe is the Cook Inlet population. However, with an estimated 200 to 300 whales left from an original 2,000, the population was designated endangered in 2008. While Alaskan Natives have voluntarily stopped hunting these whales, predation by orca whales, ship strikes and pollution are believed to contribute to their continuing decline. Between May and September, the whales can sometimes be seen next to the Seward Highway at Beluga Point, where they like to rub their bodies against the rocks, scraping off the loose skin during their annual molt.
The other populations are in Bristol Bay, the Eastern Bering Sea, Eastern Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea. Belugas inhabit the Arctic Ocean and swim into bays of all the bordering countries. They are very social and travel in pods of 10 to 15 animals, though sometimes hundreds congregate. In the bays, where the water is warmer and the sea water mixes with the incoming river water there is an abundance of food in the muddy estuarine sediment. Belugas seek out these places to give birth and raise their calves. Fun fact: Belugas are the only whale with a neck joint, which gives them an advantage in searching through the mud for tasty morsels.
Thus, “baby beluga in the deep blue sea” seems to be the first lie of the song. Of the seven ocean basins, the Arctic is in fact the smallest and shallowest. Now, if baby beluga happens to be part of the Cook Inlet population, it would of course technically be in the Pacific Ocean, which is the largest and on average deepest ocean basin. However, Cook Inlet itself is considered a continental shelf sea and not so deep and blue either.
“Swim so wild and swim so free” is the next lie, because a baby beluga is under constant surveillance by its caring mother and the whole pod.
The last line of the verse goes “and a little white whale on the go”. This can be understood in two ways: You might think that the baby beluga is white, which it is not. Belugas are born a blueish gray color and change to the creamy white color that is characteristic of adults gradually over about five years. Belugas are the only white whale and sometimes White Whale is used as a name for the species. So, if the song lyrics capitalize “White Whale” the verse is technically correct, but if it is spelled in lower case, the baby beluga is gray, although it would also be confusing to sing that it is a little gray whale on the go, since a Gray Whale (capitalized) is a different species!
In our present time where one of the scariest environmental news deals with the warming of the Arctic Ocean, which will have severe effects on the beluga’s survival, I am most bothered by the line “is the water warm, is your mama home with you so happy”. An adult beluga whale has a body fat content of 40%. It’s white color and lack of a dorsal fin are adaptations for swimming in ice covered seas. In this time of warming seawater, we should not assume that the whale is happy when the water is warm, because this baby is adapted to be happy in the cold. I simply change the lyrics when I sing the song.
There is one last lie that I wanted to point out in the next verse: “see the water squirting out of your spout.” Since the spout of a whale is its exhaled breath, it is not water but air. The reason we see the spouts of whales as a cloud is that their body temperature is so much warmer than the surrounding water that the warm air condenses when exhaled forcefully and suddenly. It is the same effect as when you can see your breath on a very cold day. There is a little water in the form of steam in every exhaled breath, but it certainly does not squirt. If the baby beluga did squirt water out of its spout we should be very concerned about it because it would mean it has water in its lungs and is drowning, which would make this a sad little song.
What is true and fun is that belugas can sing. They make so many noises and are so playful and interactive when around humans that the line “sing your little song, sing for all your friends” is absolutely fitting. I think I will continue to learn the little song on my guitar and perhaps the kids at camp can help me change the verses into something more accurate. After all, we should educate our kids about the ocean, not tell them lies. Especially when we talk about something so amazing as a baby beluga whale!