Beluga whales are amazing marine mammals that have some pretty special skills like navigating by sound (“echolocation”) and incredible swimming and diving abilities. Even with such super strengths belugas face some serious threats and are in need of your help.
Over the past 150 years beluga whale populations in the Cumberland Sound region have declined by 75%. One of the major threats to belugas is climate change which is warming their Arctic home and causing some big changes. As the Arctic ice melts, it becomes a very different place filled with more boats and killer whales, a top predator of belugas. To further investigate how Canada’s changing Arctic is affecting belugas, Dr. Steve Ferguson and his research team headed north!
Spot a Beluga
To help belugas we first need to find them, that’s why Dr. Steve Ferguson and his research team took to the skies to conduct the largest aerial whale survey in Canadian waters. The team played a massive game of whale hide-and-seek in an airplane! They documented the spots belugas were living in, especially around the north eastern region of Baffin Island.
Once the beluga locations were plotted on a map the researchers set out in boats to the prime whale hangouts so scientists could do some eavesdropping. Listening in on other peoples’ conversations is pretty sneaky, but we are sure the belugas won’t mind because we are using the information to help protect them.
The research team listens in on whale talk using hydrophones. These are special recording devices that are dropped into the water at the locations found during the aerial survey. The recordings capture the sounds that the beluga whales make, as well as communication from other marine mammals, and boat noises. How well the hydrophone is able to record depends on the day; things like temperature and background noise can affect what the scientists are able to hear. Still, this research method is the best option to learn about beluga communication and boat noise because the hydrophones are affordable and they don’t really bother the animals.
clearwater beluga recording
What’s A Whale Got To Say?
Once the scientists collect all the sound recordings they get to work reviewing the data. From the recordings they can learn how beluga whales use echolocation and find out more about the impact of shipping traffic on the whales’ communication. Just imagine how hard it might be for the belugas to hear each other if their calls are “drowned” out by the noise from large boats! The sound recordings and aerial surveys give researchers a really good idea of what it is like to be a beluga whale today. It shows scientists not only how boat traffic affects belugas but also gives us a better understanding of what the whales are eating, how deep they dive to get food and how often, their movement patterns as well as the size of their population.
Track That Whale
Two of Dr. Steve Ferguson’s PhD students, Kristin Westdal and Natalie Reinhart, are studying how killer whales affect beluga whale populations. To study beluga and killer whale interactions Kristin observes the whales and monitors their movements. Kristin has satellite-tagged six belugas in the Hudson Bay region, while Natalie tagged five killer whales in the Baffin Island region. To attach a satellite tracking device, researchers start by monitoring belugas from the shore. When a group is spotted they approach slowly by boat and then carefully attach the tags to the whales. To tag killer whales, which are much bigger than belugas, the researchers approach the whales by boat. When they are about 20 m away they use a cross bow to attach the small satellite transmitters.
The transmitters are placed under the dorsal fin for killer whales. For belugas, the tags are fixed on to the dorsal ridge since belugas don’t have a dorsal fin. The transmitters are placed in these spots so that they won’t harm the whales; the skin is thin and the blubber has few nerve endings or blood vessels to cause them discomfort. These satellite transmitters are helping Kristin and Natalie monitor the movements of the whales and what happens when killer whales move into beluga habitat. Scientists use a special satellite system to look at the movements from a computer.