Specialists hold comprehensive aerial surveys of sea mammals in White, Barents and Pechora seas

Specialists hold comprehensive aerial surveys of sea mammals in White, Barents and Pechora seas

1 September 2011

From August 7 through August 25, 2011, specialists from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, the Russian Academy of Sciences, conducted comprehensive aerial surveys of sea mammals in the White, Barents and Pechora seas. These scientific activities were performed under the Beluga White Whale Programme and the Atlantic Walrus Programme, a cooperative project between the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution and the Marine Mammals Council.

Using a specially equipped airplane, the specialists conducted a survey of the White Sea area over a five day period. Included in the survey were Gorlo Strait and Voronka, as well as Dvina, Mezen and Onega bays and Kandalaksha Gulf. The specialists used a standard grid showing recorded routes. The recorded schematic shows the plotted routes that have been used since 2005 providing a point of reference for data obtained during the current aerial survey.


According to the preliminary results, the number of beluga whales in the White Sea in August 2011 was fewer than the number registered in previous years. Scientists assume the lower number is due to conducting the aerial monitoring at a different time of the year relative to the previous surveys which were conducted in mid-July. It is assumed that belugas begin their regular migration from the White Sea in mid-August.


For the first time, zoologists from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution inspected the Barents Sea's coastal waters at Kola Peninsula. They found an area inhabited by a large group of sea mammals, specifically, beluga whales, various seals, and Minke whales, near Cape Svyatoy Nos. The aircraft's instruments detected a number of warm water fronts in the sea in this location. This is an indication that warm Gulf Stream waters mix with cold Barents Sea waters. In the sites where animal groups were found, a phytoplankton bloom was spotted – evidently, these areas are inhabited by species of fish that are the favorite food of Cetaceans and pinnipeds.


The Pechora Sea survey was carried out to find and number animals of the order Cetacea and pinnipeds, particularly the Atlantic walrus, which is listed on the Russian Red List of Endangered Species. With the airplane, specialists conducted a thorough aerial survey of the coastal territories and coastal waters of Kolguyev and Vaigach islands, as well as several smaller islands, and the continental coast of the Pechora Sea. Beluga whales have only been spotted at Kara Strait; a dozen were seen.


The scientists were lucky enough to spot a large walrus herd on Vaigach Island. The Atlantic walrus, which is listed in Russia's Red List, was thought to be nearly extinct in this region. However, the fact that a large walrus herd was spotted gives hope for protection measures, especially considering the industrial exploration planned for the region. Now, additional measures by the government and environmental organisations are required to preserve and study the Atlantic walrus in the Barents Sea.


Scientists report that, sadly, during the expedition, three large dead walruses were found - one on the Kolguyev Island coast and two near the village of Varandei. The cause of death is unknown.


The data gathered during the expedition will be processed and analysed, with the results to be presented in scientific articles and reports, particularly at the 4th session of the expert advisory group for the preservation and study of the walrus in the southeast Barents Sea, scheduled for the autumn of 2011 in St. Petersburg.


The work under the Beluga White Whale Programme will be continued in autumn 2011.