New observations of the reproductive gatherings of beluga whales

New observations of the reproductive gatherings of beluga whales

6 September 2010

The integrated expedition of the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences continued its work in the White Sea off the Karelian coast of the Kandalaksha Gulf from June 20 to July 4, 2010. This expedition was conducted as part of the 2010 White Whale Programme and was organised jointly with the WWF's Marine Programme under the auspices of the Chupa Yacht Club.


The expedition's goal was to find and study the reproductive gatherings of beluga whales along the Karelian coast of the Kandalaksha Gulf and the Onega Bay from the village of Chupa to the village of Pongoma. The scientists observed beluga whales through binoculars from the Magellan sailing yacht during the long-term passages from one location to another, from the Brig motor boat during reconnaissance surveys, from the yacht while anchored at the bases, or watched white whales from the shore near the areas where they were expected to gather. The beluga whales were photographed at a short range to facilitate further photo identification, which is based on the individual scars present on the animal's body. These natural marks, which can be easily spotted on the white back, tail or sides, make it possible to distinguish the whales.


Two reproductive gatherings of beluga whales were discovered during the expedition, and in addition to those, several encounters were recorded with solitary beluga whales as well as groups comprising from two up to over twenty whales. The beluga whales that inhabit the White Sea (both solitary whales and groups) are deeply attached to their summer habitats. Groups of female beluga whales and their calves occupy the same areas every year. The summer gatherings of family groups are essential for maintaining the pod's social structure and raising the calves. A reproductive gathering is a local pod of beluga whales that repeatedly gets together in almost the same place. It is here where mature beluga whales copulate, give birth to their calves and raise them. The reasons that the beluga whales gather in the same areas of the White Sea every summer have not been examined in full yet. However, scientists believe that these gatherings are connected with historical, behavioral and environmental factors. Any negative impact on the beluga whales or their habitat during this period may cause a break-up of the gathering, stress to the adult species or the death of calves. The beluga whales that the researchers encountered were quite timid and only allowed sailing yachts to approach them. The beluga whales reacted extremely negatively to the motor boats; they were frightened by the noisy engines.


As it is, not all of the reproductive gatherings in the White Sea have been described and examined in detail yet; neither the status nor the structure of the gatherings in the Kandalaksha Gulf has been defined. In addition to visual observations, the locals were also surveyed in order to get more data. Through these surveys, the location of the beluga whale gathering in Gridino was confirmed and the gathering's whereabouts at the Khennoi Navolok Cape were discovered as well. In all, 46 to 54 beluga whales were discovered during the expedition.


The scientists plan to continue researching the summer gatherings of beluga whales in the White Sea next year.