Research into the population, distribution, and seasonal migration of beluga whales in Russian seas continues

Research into the population, distribution, and seasonal migration of beluga whales in Russian seas continues

6 September 2010

The second stage of the integrated expedition, which is a part of the 2010 White Whale Programme and is made up of employees from the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences, was conducted from June 24 till August 24, 2010. The goal of this year's fieldwork was to identify the population and distribution of beluga whales, including working in areas which had not been previously observed.


Two permanent bases were set up in the Far East, one in the southern part of the Sea of Okhotsk on Chkalov Island, the Khabarovsk Territory, and the other in the northern part of the Sea of Okhotsk in the village of Ust-Khairyuzovo, the Kamchatka Territory. An aerial survey of beluga whales in the Sea of Okhotsk was conducted once again. From August 4 till August 24, the scientists managed to examine the entire coastal area of the Sea of Okhotsk Sea from a plane specially equipped with a laboratory. This area included the Tatar Strait, the Shelikhov and Sakhalin Gulfs as well as the Taui, the Penzhina and the Gizhigin Bays. Beluga whales in the waters of the Shantar Sea were also counted.


As opposed to the summer of 2009, when mass approaches of fish were registered near all the coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk, except for the coast of West Kamchatka, this year red salmon (chum salmon and hunchback salmon) were seen near the West Kamchatka coast. In connection with this, some changes in the distribution of fish at the Sakhalin Gulf and the Shantar Sea were revealed. Beluga whales follow the shoals of fish, gathering in groups and even pods with up to one thousand whales. Researchers recorded more than 5,000 beluga whales in the entire Sea of Okhotsk, with more than 1,000 whales in the eastern part of the sea. Now the data remains to be comprehensively analysed and interpreted. The scientists observed many other marine mammals apart from the beluga whales. For instance, they counted the population of gray whales along Sakhalin's east coast.


From June 24 till July 12, employees of the Institute of Ecology and Evolution examined the mouth of the Penzhina River from small boats near the village of Manila and at the top of the Penzhina Bay in order to study the beluga whales inhabiting the most remote and hard-to-access areas of the Sea of Okhotsk. By questioning the locals and making observations from the shore and their boats, the scientists managed to determine the places where beluga whales gathered, the time when they came to the mouth of the Penzhina River and the movements of the fish in those areas. This information was subsequently confirmed to a large extent through an aerial survey.


Conducting research in this area proved to be difficult on account of the extreme tidal range of the area. There is a very narrow window for going out to sea or returning to the shore, only when the water level reaches its peak. In general, the area turned out to be very interesting; however, it was very difficult to access and uncomfortable to work in. A group of researchers is expected to be sent there again next year to take genetic samples of beluga whales and observe their behaviour.


The expedition's work in catching beluga whales and attaching tracking devices to them is currently underway at the permanent base on Chkalov Island. The scientists plan to finish fieldwork for the 2010 summer season by late September.