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Beluga Whale Research at Arctic Watch - Field Notes, Weeks 2 and 3

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Behavioral ecologist Dr. Valeria Vergara has spent several seasons conducting research on beluga whale communications at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, as part of Quark's Scientists in Residence program.

The days blend into each other in the High Arctic, where working nights under the 2 a.m. sun or working days is guided not by an internal clock or by the necessary stillness that comes with darkness, but by the cycles of the whales, which seem to be guided by the tides.

The whales seem to come closer to land at low tide here at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, to rub and frolic in the shallows – which helps with their unique skin moulting – and it is easier to watch them. And it is at low tide that entrapments occur.

Beluga whales gather in the Cunningham Inlet near Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge.
Beluga whales frolic in the shallows - Photo credit: Quark passenger (name unknown), July 18, 2015 Expedition

Whale entrapments in the channel

These temporary – and perhaps voluntary – channel entrapments or isolation events occur when whales swim across a shallow sandbar into a fresh water channel during the ebbing tide. As the tide continues to ebb the sand-bar becomes exposed, encircling the whales in their own natural pool until the next high tide.

This has taken place often enough this season (12 entrapments thus far!) to have provided a goldmine of information on contact call rates in relation to group numbers and group composition. I could not have hoped for a better natural experiment, with several important variables uniform across events (depth of the hydrophone, distance of the whales to the hydrophone, situation, and behaviour).

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When I record the whales in their temporary river channel I know I am not recording anyone else – as the constant chatter of their 500 pals is either absent, or very faint (depending on the tidal stage), because sound does not carry well from the other side of the sandbar on less than 1 foot of water. This makes correlating group composition and acoustics much easier. And to add further value to the data, filmmakers Michael and Dave Parfit - who have joined me here to film this project as part of a documentary for The Nature of Things - and photographer Nansen Weber, lead photographer in Arctic Watch Polar Photography program - have contributed invaluable drone images and video of most of these entrapments.

Estimating group composition accurately at eye level can be surprisingly difficult. When I compared my estimations with the drone videos, I found I often underestimated the number of entrapped whales when groups were large (we had an entrapment of 38 whales!), because many animals look alike and rarely surface at the same time, and young ones can hide under the adults for long periods of time. In addition, whale size becomes crystal clear from the air, allowing me to count the number of calves, yearlings, juveniles and adults.


The use of drones for whale research

Since drone videos are not always available, I made a home-made ‘drone' - duck-taping a very long aluminum pole to an equally long extendable pole that screws to a GoPro camera. That gives me a good 15 feet of elevation above the whales. It is not as polished as a drone, but it works!

I also regularly spend time recording the larger herd. The research tower works well for this, it is a small (1 x 1 m) platform built on steel poles, which one accesses at low tide. The key to a good stay in the tower is to follow these two simple Tower Commandments:

# 1) to time your exit with precision; there is a point beyond which it becomes impossible to leave the tower, even with waders, unless, of course, one is willing to swim;

# 2) to assume you might get stuck there, and bring food, water, and more clothes than you think you will need: the ocean wind can be ferociously cold.

I somehow failed to follow Tower Commandments # 1 and #2 earlier this week. I was so absorbed by the whales that I missed the window of time to wade out of the tower – and I proceeded to get stranded on it for 8 hours…without a speck of food (a bigger deal than it sounds to my shrew-like metabolism), and less warm layers than I would have liked to. It was one of those “this is a little on the uncomfortable side, but too amazing to complain” moments.


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The whales slowly surrounded the platform with the rising tide. Closer and closer to me they came, many swimming on their side, bending their strangely flexible necks, one eye near the surface, clearly looking at me, then spooking at their own daring and swimming away with a tail flick, but back within a minute to take another look…the juveniles in particular were the most curious. The whales and I eyed one another, intelligence-to-intelligence, curious beings wondering about each other.

Dr. Valeria Vergara conducts beluga whale communications research at Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, as part of the Quark Expeditions Scientists in Residence program.
Recording and observing belugas at the observation tower as the tide rises. Photo credit: Valeria Vergara, Vancouver Aquarium


Beluga whale similarities with humans

It is easy for us humans to feel a sense of empathy with belugas, as despite our obvious differences (try using sonar to navigate ice leads in the dark) the parallels are large: we are both highly social, long-lived, intelligent and curious species, with long periods of parental care and offspring dependency, fundamental cooperation in raising these young, and loquacious to no end.

I observed mothers nursing their neonates right under the tower, babysitting adults with many young in tow, bands of juveniles cavorting around in that very tactile beluga-way, and what we presume is an all-male gang (they are larger, always together, no calves – we call them “the big boys”) roaming around the large herd as if one unit. And the recordings were fantastic. Since mothers and calves stream by the tower on their way up and down the river, amidst hundreds of whales, this long tower session provided good information on the distinctiveness of mother-calf contact calls in beluga-chatter, in other words, how you can hear them clearly in a crowd. I waded out at 8 p.m. a little cold and hungry, but profoundly content.

It is now 3 a.m. I just returned from another great session. I had scanned the delta from the research cliff at midnight: sure enough, it looked like there was yet another entrapment in the usual river channel. I was tired, I must admit. It was a long day, with an entrapment this morning and the afternoon organizing hundreds of gigabytes of data (sound and video). But my curiosity never fails to drive me: Are these entrapments intentional? Do the whales actively seek out some isolation from the large herd? If not, why do they happen so regularly, and why do we keep seeing members of the larger herd join the ones in the channel by laboriously “caterpillaring” their way into it inch by inch when the tide allows, rather than the “entrapped” animals rushing to get out? Are there any neonates in the group tonight (ideal scenario to test the idea that they make lower frequency calls, potentially more easily masked by anthropogenic noise)?


Beluga whale communication, sounds and frequencies

I packed my gear, hopped on the ATV and drove down to the delta. I was surprised to see only two adults in the channel, and they were calling loudly and continuously. I wondered if perhaps they could hear their offspring or their companions and they were responding to them.

A large mass of whales crowded the other side of the shallow sandbar, including calves and juveniles. I could not hear their calls through my speakers (connected to the hydrophone), but perhaps the whales could. It is possible, I thought, that only the high frequency components of the contact calls (which are very broadband, 500 to 120,000 Hz!) were getting through.

Considering the less than half a foot of water covering the sandbar, this would make sense, since the shorter wavelengths of the high frequency sounds might get through the tight shallow space (much like Echosounders used in shallow water typically use higher frequencies – 30,000 Hz or more - than those used in the deep ocean). I need to look at the spectrograms, which will show me what my human ears cannot hear! But not tonight, as I am already in my double sleeping bag listening to the rhythmic blows and calls of the whales breaking the silence of this Arctic night.

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