White Guard. Interview with Dmitry Glazov, the deputy head of the Beluga White Whale Programme at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution (IPEE RAS)

White Guard. Interview with Dmitry Glazov, the deputy head of the Beluga White Whale Programme at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution (IPEE RAS)

14 October 2011

As it happens, belugas undergo a spontaneous molt shedding of the outer layer of their skin. These mammals enjoy singing and run their own kindergartens.


You have just returned from an expedition. Could you please share your findings with us?


Dmitry Glazov: In addition to the White Sea, this year we managed to conduct aerial studies of the southern Barents Sea and the water area known as the Pechora Sea. We have uncovered an interesting spot in the Barents Sea where part of the Gulfstream flows along the entire length of the Kola coast, almost reaching Murmansk. However, it eventually runs into the Barents Sea current right before the White Sea Gorge where both waters quickly mix. We have seen many beluga whales, seals and lesser rorquals, aka Minke’s whales, in this area. We ascribe the presence of belugas here to the ample supplies of fish, plankton, sea productivity and other environmental factors.


The Barents Sea's biological activity centres vary depending on the season. The sea is not just a body of water; it has certain centres in it, and belugas are known to enjoy staying at the spots where cold water and the warm one meet. The shore is near, and mammals can hide there from raids by killer whales – their main enemy. At the same time, such spots have plentiful food supplies to keep belugas full.


It was believed for a long time that the White Sea belugas are conventionally divided into two categories – females, calves and teenage belugas who form “kindergartens” during the summer where little belugas are raised and nursed and male groups that travel across the White Sea and visit females to mate. Some believe that males and some females without offspring leave the White Sea for the winter. For the first time in the White Sea, we attached satellite tags to male belugas last year so as to follow their migrations. Theoretically, the animals were supposed to leave the place, but instead they spent the entire ice period in the White Sea. Initially, ice covered almost the entire surface of the White Sea. The winter was pretty cold and the ice was strong. Then, sometime in February, southern winds blew all this ice away from the White Sea Gorge to the Barents Sea. The ice fields remained untouched only around the entry to the White Sea Gorge, and all of the tagged beluga whales stayed in this ice without venturing into open spaces. Once the ice melted, they left for the Ponoi River estuary closer to the Barents Sea. We assume that spring humpback salmon fry have their downstream migration at this time of the year. Belugas feasted on them and returned to the White Sea. Unfortunately, we couldn’t tag any females, but we still managed to disprove at least part of the theory that all of the males migrate and leave the White Sea.


– Heated debates about the polar bear hunting quotas take place on the website dedicated to the Polar Bear project overseen by Vladimir Putin. What about the quotas for beluga whale hunting?


Dmitry Glazov: Belugas are found across the Arctic and are fairly plentiful. They do harvest beluga – it is a commercial species – and the Federal Agency for Fishery establishes harvesting quotas. These quotas are distributed between various enterprises for various purposes. Some of them are issued to indigenous peoples who use belugas for food. These peoples have no market to sell beluga meat or skin. Other quotas are used for research purposes, such as tagging, studying genetics, or taking blood samples in order to study the impact of industrial noise on beluga whales. We do this at the Utrish Marine Station, which is a branch of the IPEE RAS located on the Black Sea coast on the Maly Utrish Cape. Still others are issued for cultural and educational purposes, such as seaquariums, dolphinariums and zoos. Some quotas are made available for commercial harvesting per se, i.e. for selling beluga meat at grocery stores. The most mass-scale slaughter of sea animals occurred before and right after WWII when food was scarce. These white whales occur in large quantities and it’s fairly easy to hunt them and get lots of meat, blubber and skin. That was done by the Soviet government to save people from hunger, but, unfortunately, the slaughter of sea mammals has become a lucrative business later on.


The commercial demand for seal mammal meat and skins is now down in Russia. The locals shoot them to feed sledge dogs because the latter thrive on fatty foods. They freeze meat and feed their dogs during the winter.


The Federal Agency for Fishery, which is in charge of issuing licenses for shooting and slaughtering, operates through several so-called resource institutes, including ChukotTINRO in Chukotka, TINRO-Tsentr in Vladivostok, KamchatNIRO and so on. They are scattered all over Russia. The Moscow-based VNIRO – the All-Russian Research Institute for Fishery and Oceanography – is considered the headquarters. All of these institutes are in charge of collecting information about sea mammal harvesting needs and substantiating quotas for commercial harvesting for further use by an independent expert panel at the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources, which approves the final yearly quotas.


Are there any new goals in terms of beluga whale studies?


Dmitry Glazov: There is an academic or fundamental – as opposed to applied – science. Researchers study various aspects of the life of these animal populations, which go beyond their value as objects of harvesting and their habitats as well. For example, Professor Belkovich, who heads a lab at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oceanology, studies belugas’ social behavior and bioacoustics. His staff studies the acoustic activities of these animals in their natural habitat, record belugas’ sounds, interpret them and identify dialects. The lab run by Belkovich has had a base on the Solovetsky Islands for many years now. They know everything about the White Sea. They know where and which particular beluga whales locate. This is an example of fundamental science.


All of the other studies focusing on white whales’ migration, genetic status and health have ended in complete failure in Russia. However, in 2009, the  government took interest in this species and allocated a certain amount of funds under programmes run by the Russian Geographical Society. We have extensive experience in doing similar work with Black Sea dolphins. We have a team of dedicated professionals and took up beluga studies in 2009. We taught Vladimir Putin how to tag belugas and perform a biopsy.  


We have built our team over these two to three years and are now trying to focus on issues and areas that we believe are of prime importance. We are making records, tagging animals and collecting genetic samples in the White Sea. We have a great spot on the western Kamchatka coast off the Okhotsk Sea – the village of Ust-Khairyuzovo – where you can see the entire water area from the house that we use as our base. We have built an observation tower on top of it. That way, we can see how belugas move around and play in their natural habitat.


 – You mentioned that academic science deals with studies of belugas’ acoustic activities. Are these animals really capable ofspeakingand communicating with each other?


Dmitry Glazov: All toothed whales emit sounds when they hunt – short ultrasound messages seeking to determine distances and sizes. There is also what we refer to as communicative messages, such as beluga singing.


There are studies that are designed to interpret the meaning of sounds emitted by belugas. We can clearly distinguish between dialects when we listen to our recordings. Animals from Kamchatka, the Okhotsk Sea and the White Sea use totally different communication messages. There are certain shared sounds, such as warnings of danger. Last year, we started recording sounds while we were performing biopsies in Kamchatka. We were startled by shrieking sounds when a colleague hit a beluga with a sampling probe. Not just the beluga in question emitted this sound, all of the belugas around were screaming. We were puzzled as to why they did this. Was it because it saw or felt the pick, or because we hit a sore spot, or was the beluga just yelling at us?


As for the communication between different beluga populations, we haven’t heard about contacts between the belugas that live, for instance, in the Okhotsk Sea, and the belugas in the Pacific Ocean. This is because they have long drifted apart in their genetics, behavior, morphology and other criteria. Some time ago, Russian and Canadian researchers held a joint experiment in the White Sea. They have brought in equipment emitting sounds and showing video clips in the water. They put this equipment in the water in Russia and in Canada. Interestingly, the belugas approached and looked, but they did not show any intention to communicate with each other as we expected.


Any other differences between different beluga groups?


Dmitry Glazov: For example, in the Okhotsk Sea, beluga whales split into three groups during the summer. One group resides in the Sakhalin Bay, the Amur River estuary and the Ulbansky and Nikolaya Bays. The second group prefers bays located off the Shantar Sea (Uda Bay, Tugur Bay), while the third hangs out in the Shelikhov Bay (Penzhinskaya Guba and Gizhiginskaya Guba) and along the Western Kamchatka coast. We have mostly studied belugas in the Sakhalin Bay – there’s plenty of them there and access is much less complicated – we tagged them, observed their social behavior, and so on. Later on, we expanded our research to include other bays. We spotted tagged belugas in the Nikolaya Bay. During the summer, they stick to rivers rich in humpbacked and chum salmon. There are few permanent beluga residents in the Nikolaya Bay – up to 80 – because fish-filled rivers flowing into this bay are fairly small.


In addition, visible sore spots on beluga whales’ skin look different in different beluga populations. One can easily see that the belugas residing in the Sakhalin Bay have better skin than the ones living in the Uda Bay whose skin is more damaged. Killer whales are less active in the Sakhalin Bay because killer whales find it difficult to negotiate shallow waters. Conversely, in the Ulbansky Bay, you can see killer whales chasing belugas, and many beluga whales sport killer whale teeth marks on their skin. Once killer whales move in, belugas head for shallow waters for safety. Things work the same way in Kamchatka.


Please tell us more fun facts about belugas.


Dmitry Glazov: They have very tight-knit social relationships. That is why they get together in clusters or family groups. These families can be fairly small or quite large when several small families merge. Belugas are also known for sticking to certain areas and routes. For instance, the Japanese harvested them aggressively outside of the city of Okhotsk to a point where they killed all of them. For unknown reasons, belugas haven’t shown up in that spot since. We believe that they maintain very strong links with their homes, places where they grew up, and they tend to return to such places. Accordingly, if all of them were exterminated, the home was lost and there was no place to call home. There are exceptions, and occasionally we encounter solitary belugas during our recording trips. Perhaps, each species, even humans, have individuals who enjoy being alone. Such lone belugas may set up a new group if they have offspring, maybe even in Okhotsk, but making such forecasts is fairly difficult.


Beluga whales molt during early fall. This is the only cetacean in Russian waters that goes through molting. This is referred to as spontaneous molting – their white skin swells and starts itching. If you run your hand over their skin at that time, the skin will stay in your hand. They roll on the bed during the molting season. This is an interesting sight. During the low tide when the sand bars come to the surface, belugas propel themselves into them trying to get rid of their unwanted skin.


Some colleagues who deal with asymmetric animal behaviour also work with belugas. Any child – human or beluga – has certain preferences, including what side to lie on and on what side of the mother to be on. When we take aerial shots of belugas, we see that little belugas (calves) normally lie to the right of their mothers. However, when they grow up, they tend to leave their mothers or maintain larger distances.


How do belugas react to humans?


Dmitry Glazov: Belugas have developed their attitude towards humans through observation over many generations. Clearly, you can tell that humans haven’t caused any harm to belugas in a long time in places where they aren’t afraid to approach boats. They are interested in humans and have no fear of them. Conversely, in the Sakhalin Bay, where belugas are being constantly caught for dolphinariums and had been previously harvested for blubber and tankage for fur farms, they are fairly skittish. They swim away the moment that they hear engine sounds. In the Ulbansky Bay, young belugas approach boats and show an interest in them. For example, belugas try to bite slow-moving rubber boats outfitted with large inflated air chambers. If a propeller is rotating slowly, belugas will approach it because they are interested.


Last year, we observed belugas in the Khairyuzovo River estuary and the Uda Bay. There’s fairly heavy fishing boat traffic in Ust-Khairyuzovo, but belugas have somehow gotten used to motorboat sounds. When a boat passes – the engine emits a particular sound – belugas instantly change their acoustic range so their companions can hear it. When we try to approach them in a boat, they already know who we are, dive and stay on the bed for a while. Once the boat is gone, they come back to the surface. There are almost no fishermen in the Uda Bay, so belugas let people come close. Belugas reside permanently in the Anadyr Lagoon as well, and boat traffic is not a problem for them at all. There’s an airport on one side of the lagoon and a port on the other side of it. So, the passenger boat traffic is fairly heavy there, but belugas swim freely between these boats without paying much attention to the boats or the people.


– This fall, the Institute of Oceanology plans to ask the State Duma to initiate a legislative ban on tourists harassing belugas on their breeding grounds. What do you think of this initiative?


Dmitry Glazov: The tourist impact is a big problem across the world. Clearly, dolphins, whales and belugas attract people. Certain firms or private entrepreneurs make money off such an interest. The problem is that belugas let people approach them only after they have eaten and feel comfortable. Conversely, there’s no way to approach belugas when they are hunting or fleeing a predator. So, people harass these animals exactly at a time when they feel good. How can they rest when there are boats tossing above their heads or divers cruising around?


The employees of the Institute of Oceanology are mostly concerned with human activities in the water area off the Greater Solovetsky Island because offshore areas are a favorite spot for the females and calves that are most affected by such intrusions. There are internationally adopted rules for human behavior around animals similar to the rules for handling animals during transportation, trapping, and so on. There are two opposing opinions here – either allow everything and let humans enjoy communion with nature in full or ban any and all contacts. They are now discussing a draft law on the humane treatment of animals – I saw it – but it only deals with cats and dogs. There’s nothing about other animals. Therefore, there’s a need to enlist specialists to help develop rules governing interactions between humans and animals seeking to preclude any intrusion into their life. Many believe that it’s the right decision to ban humans from any interference in animal life – just to ban all contacts. From another, “human,” standpoint… As is known, humans who had animal contacts when they were young treat animals more humanely in their later years. Take, for instance, dolphinariums. Yes, keeping animals in captivity is not good, but both adults and children develop an interest in these animals and a love for them when they see them. They then interact better with other animals afterward. Therefore, there’s also a psychological and social aspect to this.


A case in point – some time ago, they caught several bottle-nosed dolphins in the Black Sea and moved them to Israel. These dolphins lived in a closed water area and their numbers grew over years. They chose not to release them in Israel, but decided instead to take them back to the Black Sea. There was a female dolphin Pashosh that was released near the town of Alushta and went to live off the shores of Abkhazia. It was half-tame and used to come close to the shore. They started taking tourists to this place, lots of them. Eventually, it was killed by a boat propeller.


I believe that there must be rules. There’s no need to invent them. They are already in place. Specialists just need to adapt them to specific Russian conditions. For example, dolphins are startled by two-stroke engines because they are very noisy. However, four-stroke engines make less noise and cause less harm to dolphins. Or, the numbers of tourists that are taken on wildlife tours should be limited. In some places, like the Greater Solovetsky Island, boat traffic should be banned altogether during particular seasons.


Do you know of any aggressive behaviour on the part of belugas? Is it possible at all, or they are totally peaceful animals?


Dmitry Glazov: There were instances at dolphinariums when they acted aggressively towards humans, but all such instances can be explained by human stupidity. There was an instance when a trainer taught a beluga to grab a female swimmer by the swimsuit and pull her to the bottom of the pool. Mind you, belugas can go as deep as six meters below the surface! I have never heard of or experienced myself aggressive beluga behaviour in their natural habitat.


What are you plans for the future? Where do you plan to go?


Dmitry Glazov: Our Beluga White Whale Programme encompasses the entire Arctic area. However, certain areas are hardly accessible, but belugas live everywhere and, as I mentioned earlier, they are different in various parts of the world.


We are trying to locate places where we can productively work during the summer season when researchers can do their work and focus on our goals.


An expedition to Kamchatka is due back home soon. Another expedition will shortly head for the White Sea – the Varzuga River – to tag animals and take samples. Still another group will go to the Tiksi port and embark on the Mikhail Somov research boat that will follow the Northern Sea Route. We try to take this route every year in order to revisit places that we saw earlier and gather information about all of the sea mammals that we encounter en route.


One of the tasks that we are facing is to locate beluga concentration spots in northern seas, describe them, try to work with them and, perhaps, even come up with recommendations for oilmen and shipowners who are actively engaged in developing Arctic regions. For example, the Shtokman oil field will soon come on stream and they are going to build a pipeline. An occasional oil spill might affect the ecosystem, including belugas and humans, in unknown ways.