White Whale Congregation Sites Found in the White Sea

White Whale Congregation Sites Found in the White Sea

19 April 2010

From March 15 to 24, 2010, an expedition of scientists from the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences led by Doctor of Biology Vyacheslav Rozhnov conducted comprehensive research in the White Sea as part of the Belukha-White Whale Programme. The leader of the programme was Lev Mukhametov, PhD in Biology, a leading research fellow with the Institute of Ecology and Evolution.


The scientists proceeded with research that they began a year ago into the distribution range, number and seasonal migrations of white whales in Russia's seas. Zoologists conducted an aerial survey, keeping counts of White Sea white whales from a specially equipped L-410 aircraft of Arkhangelsky Aviaotryad Airlines. It took the scientists two days to transform an ordinary passenger liner, which otherwise makes regular flights to the Solovetskiye Islands and townships in the Arkhangelsk Region, into a flying laboratory with special equipment and a large reserve of flying time.


Under established procedure the scientists used this aircraft to conduct aerial surveys, flying along standard courses over the entire White Sea basin. During the flight, they were taking photographs of the underlying ice cover and of various animals that were seen from the aircraft.


The scientists have discovered that white whales do not migrate from the White Sea in the winter but stay in the water areas that are 80% to 90% covered with ice. They have also identified white whale congregation sites at times when the thickness of ice cover in the White Sea is at its maximum, and they have collected material to identify the numbers and distribution of white whales in the White Sea during this period. White whale congregation sites were observed in Onega Bay and Kandalaksha Gulf near Solovki Island. The scientists did not spot these mammals either in the area of the Gorlo Strait, its northern part Voronka in the White Sea, or in Dvina Bay.


Apart from white whales, the scientists also tracked seals. Every year from February until April, a large number of Greenland seals come to the White Sea to breed, mate and cast their coat. In some years the number of these seals in the White Sea exceeded one million. During this period, white whales and Greenland seals compete for the same food. This year due to the cold weather the ice cover was conducive to the breeding and raising seal pups. More than 80% of the White Sea was covered with thick ice, which had numerous fractures and openings.


Cartographic data on the location of the Greenland seals' breeding grounds was passed to the headquarters of ice-breaker operations at the sea port of Arkhangelsk in order to change the routes of convoys navigating in this area. In compliance with an executive order issued to this effect by the Russian Federal Agency for Sea and Inland Water Transportation, the Arkhangelsk headquarters of ice-breaker operations coordinated the effort to plot courses on the map through White Sea ice for all ice-breakers and ships, regardless of who their owner was, in March and April 2010. Had these measures not been taken, the passage of convoys through the breeding grounds of seals could have killed the animals. The captains of all ice-breakers and ships were asked to promptly report the coordinates of Greenland seal congregation sites spotted in the White Sea to the headquarters.


On March 20, the wind changed from north-west to south and overnight dense pack ice moved north toward the Kola Peninsula. As a result, the densely-populated breeding grounds of young seals also moved north a bit.


The materials collected during the expedition, photographs and video recordings of white whales and Greenland seals will be analysed in order to estimate white whale and Greenland seal pup populations in the White Sea in the winter. Findings from the analysis will be published in scientific journals.

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