The main question is, to what school do the white whales of the Ulban Bay belong?

The main question is, to what school do the white whales of the Ulban Bay belong?

30 September 2011

In July and August of 2011, specialists from the Russian Academy of Sciences' Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution collected white-whale skin samples in Ulbansky Bay in the Sea of Okhotsk. Ulbansky Bay is located between Sakhalin Bay and Udskaya Guba (Bay) where, as research over the past few years has shown, different white-whale schools spend the summer season.


This research was part of a cooperative project involving the Russian Academy of Sciences' Standing Expedition to study the distribution range of white-whale populations and their migration. It was supported by the Russian Geographical Society. This project is also linked with another project to assess the current status of the Amur aggregation of white-whale herds in Russia's Sea of Okhotsk. The latter is managed by the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution and Russia's Utrishsky Dolphinarium with the support of the Hong Kong Ocean Park and the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Georgia, the United States.


The expedition tried to accomplish a number of objectives and tried to find out the "affiliation" of Ulbansky Bay white whales. Quite possibly, these marine mammals form an independent group and don't contact their western and eastern "neighbours" in summer. The results of 2009-2010 aerial white-whale scans showed that Ulbansky Bay may accommodate over a thousand whales in the summer.


Zoologists' preliminary observations show that white whales in Ulbansky Bay differ from those spending the summer season in Sakhalin Bay. These two populations have different skin-damage types and frequency. The results of DNA tests using samples collected this summer will make it possible to determine the status of Ulbansky Bay white whales. Over 60 skin samples were collected from white whales of varying age and gender.


The bay lacks even a single community. Human presence is confined to the work of a nearby seasonal fish plant and a small gold-panning team's station located 15 kilometres from the northern part of the bay. This probably explains why the local animals are not afraid of boats. At the same time, Sakhalin Bay white whales seldom allow boats to approach them within less than 100 metres. On the contrary, scientists in Ulbansky Bay often had to evade particularly playful young whales which tried to touch the propeller and even to bite the rubber launch's inflatable sections. The typically cautious females and their offspring also behaved recklessly. The females became interested in the launch and allowed their calves to swim within metres of the motor.


Up to 150 whales were sighted in the biopsy-collection area, with calves and young whales accounting for 50% of this number. All white whales which had their skin samples taken were photographed for later identification.


Apart from studying white whales, scientists watched Greenland right whales, whose Okhotsk Sea population is currently on the verge of extinction, as well as carnivorous killer whales, in Ulbansky Bay. These predators regularly entered the bay in order to hunt whales and seals.


Scientists also collected bone fragments of cetacean skeletons, as well as baleen/whalebone samples, along a ten kilometre shoreline on the south-western part of the bay, near the expedition base.


It should be noted that all operations were performed by two people. One of them simultaneously controlled the launch's strap-on motor and used a crossbow to take skin samples. And the second zoologist took pictures, kept a log, sorted and packed skin samples.