Beluga whales, those Arctic-dwelling canaries of the sea with their intricate series of chirps, are part of a fundraising campaign in eastern Canada. The St. Lawrence Beluga Project and the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) in late 2014 relaunched that campaign, Adopt a Beluga, to bring in funds for research on the animals in the St. Lawrence Estuary in Quebec. So far, 24 of the small cetaceans have been sponsored, according to a release

The sponsors include mayors of two cities, Québec City and Montréal; the Quebec Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and the Fight against Climate Change; the Canadian Steamship Lines and other companies within Quebec and Canada in general. 

The marine mammals in question have a highly social, playful nature, and are between the size of a dolphin and a true whale. If you think they look a bit like narwhals, that's because they're related. Male belugas can grow to 18 feet and about 3,500 pounds. Known scientifically as Delphinapterus leucas, they have thick skins and thick blubber and live in waters surrounding the Arctic Circle worldwide and in the St. Lawrence Estuary. Populations are difficult to measure because they live in separate pods, some of which are tracked and others that are less known. In Canada, the population is estimated at between 72,000 and 144,000. Worldwide, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) has stated that there are "well over 150,000" belugas.

Belugas in the St. Lawrence Estuary are downstream from the highly industrialized Great Lakes areas. In several studies, the population there was found to be genetically isolated from other populations. Their closest relatives are thought to be on the eastern shore of Hudson Bay, but a 2002 study found that those two groups had likely been apart for about 8,000 years. 

The campaign leaders have hopes of finding more sponsors; in a previous campaign in 1988, 122 belugas received sponsorship.

"Despite the conservation measures taken and the partial protection of its habitat, the St. Lawrence beluga population is declining. We are observing unexplained mortalities in newborns. They need us now more than ever", noted GREMM President and Scientific Director Robert Michaud in the release.

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