Beluga Whale Update: Searching, Spotting and Spying

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.

start a campaign for the beluga whale

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.

beluga whales Hudson Bay near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada

Pod of whales. Photo credit: Ansgar Walk

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.

Listen Up

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

hydrophone equipment

Hydrophones equipment (a) two top floats, (b) C-pod hydrophone, (c) AURAL hydrophone, (d) the remote release mechanism, and (e) anchor and (f) weight to help keep the hydrophones in place underwater.

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.

Listen to beluga whales

Audio recording

beluga whale smile

Photo credit: Martin Wippel

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.

Beluga whale pod off the shore

Beluga whale pod off the shore. Photo credit Billy Lindblom

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.

Check back in August to find out what the scientists have discovered about whales during their research! Got whale questions? Post your toughest brainteasers and we’ll ask the beluga experts!

Generously Supported By

The W. Garfield Weston Foundation

A Conservation Partnership With

Churchill Northern Studies Centre

Earth Rangers is a non-profit organization that works to inspire and educate children about the environment. At kids can play games, discover amazing facts, meet animal ambassadors and fundraise to protect biodiversity.
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  1. New Bee
    jackob543 says:

    belluga whale

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    Rating: 3.0/5 (3 votes cast)
  2. New Bee
    Mollyrf says:

    I love this is cool.

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    Rating: 4.8/5 (4 votes cast)
  3. Green Bean
    Wolf2003 says:

    I raised 125$ to help the Beluga Whales. When do I get the rewards?

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    Rating: 4.5/5 (4 votes cast)
  4. New Bee
    Ranger56218124 says:

    I like this website because it is about animals … very cut animals :) !!!!!!!!!!!

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    Rating: 4.0/5 (3 votes cast)
  5. New Bee
    Ranger56218285 says:

    I hope those boats go somewhere else cause if they don’t they might kill all beluga whales and that would break my heart :(

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    Rating: 3.5/5 (2 votes cast)
  6. New Bee
    LinneahWhite09 says:

    i love whales!!!!!!

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    Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)
  7. New Bee
    Ranger56218687 says:

    Whales are awesome


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    Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)
  8. Green Bean
    Ranger56220156 says:

    I LOVE BELUGA WHALES!!!!I am a ranger to help protect beluga WHALES!

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    Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)
  9. New Bee
    Ranger56220817 says:

    Whales are the best

    VN:F [1.9.10_1130]
    Rating: 5.0/5 (2 votes cast)
  10. New Bee
    10rin says:

    go beluga whales and iam ranger rinbow

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    Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

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