Lecture on white whales at the Russian Geographical Society

Lecture on white whales at the Russian Geographical Society

15 April 2013

On April 11, Dr Vsevolod Belkovich, chief research associate and head of the marine mammals laboratory at the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, gave an open lecture on white whales.


The lecture began with a documentary about white whales, or belugas, and the aims of the research on this species. For over a decade, zoologists from the Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences have studied their population size and distribution in the White Sea, as well as the population’s composition, behaviour, adaptation to their habitat and the human influence on their lives.


Dr Belkovich described the reproduction of white whales, the structure of their families and their relationships. White whale families are matriarchal, with calves typically raised by their mothers and ‘aunts’. Male belugas are only involved in mating and protection. In summertime, around 1,000 males from various local groups gather together to follow a ‘male track’ in June and July to the White Sea in order to mate and take male calves with them. It is interesting to observe the different kinds of while whale behaviour as reflected in swimming styles: criss-cross swimming is for mating, while males fight, shove and submerge rival males. If there are only two or three females ready for mating in the herd, males must compete for the privilege of mating with them. They push each other, stand up on their tails and get so enthusiastic that often drift several kilometres away. Sometimes the animals actually fight jaw to jaw but never inflict serious injury.


Belugas are very curious and enjoy examining floating objects, such as driftwood. These marine mammals have a complex social structure and well-developed communication. They are fast learners.


The audience expressed great interest in the lives of white whales and their adaptation to the Arctic environment, the upbringing of calves, echolocation, winter migration, reproduction and other aspects of their lives. The lecture concluded with unique underwater footage of belugas bathing in the sand. The film was produced by the studio of the Institute of Oceanology. The audience also heard a recording of the extraordinary calls of these ‘sea canaries.’