Preliminary results of a study of the migrations of white whales

Preliminary results of a study of the migrations of white whales

27 June 2011

Researchers have the preliminary results from a study of the migration patterns of white whales with satellite-transmitter tags attached to them in July – October 2010. The study is by the Institute of Environmental and Evolution Studies, the Russian Academy of Sciences, as part of the White Whale Programme, with the support of the Russian Geographical Society.


Researchers have been monitoring the migrations of 14 white whales. In summer 2010, they attached satellite-transmitter tags to nine of the whales in the Sea of Okhotsk near Chkalov Island and Kamchatka’s west coast. Most tags have a life span of nine months.


During the autumn and winter, the animals did not stray far from where they had been caught. In April, the ice tongues were pushed south by a powerful north wind. The whales followed the ice towards different parts of the water area, not staying together as one group. Toward the end of April, the ice cover was reduced due to the strong winds and the animals’ migration activities increased. In May, all the animals were found to be staying close to the edge of the remaining ice cover.


Researchers noted that the whales moved to the area where they were captured. The satellite-transmitter tags gradually stopped working. By the end of May, only one tag in the Sea of Okhotsk was still working. The male whale, caught and tagged on September 15, 2010, got back home to the Sakhalin Bay at the end of May 2011. By this time, there was almost no ice left except in the gulfs of the Shantar Sea.


Five more tags were attached to whales in the White Sea in October 2010. Their migrations differ from those of the whales in the Sea of Okhotsk. In March and April, there was a lot of whale activity across the sea but they did not leave it. By March, the ice in the White Sea was pushed away to the Barents Sea by southerly and southwesterly winds. According to the transmitted data, the whales stayed close to the ice clusters and did not move to the open parts of the White Sea. In April, one whale separated from the group and moved off to the Kandalaksha Gulf. By spring, there was hardly any ice left in the White Sea, and the animals moved to the Gorlo and Voronka bays. In June, the satellite-transmitter tags stopped working and transmitting data.


Researchers are currently analysing the data and comparing the results with the hydrographic, meteorological and satellite information they have. The expedition has compiled important new findings on the white whale, including its migration patterns in the White and Okhotsk seas that seem to be related to the movement of ice fields and the edges of the ice field in the winter. The animals are not avoiding ice clusters, but are actively moving around within them. The migration patterns of the whales in the two seas differ due to variations in the ice formation processes and water currents.


Researchers also confirmed previous observations that the whales do not stray far from their summer habitat, returning after nine months of migrating across the Sea of Okhotsk. Researchers hope that during the 2011 observation season they can see how the whales they caught last year are doing.


Russian-made tags did well during the research project. In 2008 and 2009 these transmitters underwent tests in the Sea of Okhotsk.  It is assumed that in 2011, Russian equipment will be used not only in the White and Okhotsk seas, but also in Chukotka in the Gulf of Anadyr.


The White Whale Programme will continue in the summer and autumn of 2011.