A kite for whales

A kite for whales

8 September 2014

The latest stage of the White Whale of the White Sea-2014 Project has been completed. For the first time, researchers have used kites to study white whales, which made it possible to collect data on the mammals’ distribution, numbers, and makeup in remote parts of the sea. The expedition was organised by the Russian Academy of Sciences P. P. Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and the Marine Mammal Council (MMC).


“During this season, specialists used a new type of drone, a kite, to research the animals,” said Natalya Remennikova, head of the MMC press service. “The kite has provided wonderful pictures. The advantage of this method of studying white whales is that it is absolutely noiseless. There is no nuisance factor. Animals can be counted from an altitude, without being disturbed.”


The expedition ran from June through August 2014, near Cape Beluzhy on Solovetsky Island in the Onega Bay and on the Golaya Koshka Island in Dvina Bay in the White Sea, the site of the whale’s spawning grounds and “kindergartens.” During this time, specialists on Golaya Koshka Island studied the population’s movement patterns, numbers, and age structure. Solovetsky Island saw the continuation of a years-long process of monitoring their numbers, age and gender makeup, based on observations with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.


The expedition produced over 20,000 white whale pictures, which specialists are now using to identify the individual animals. In addition, seven tissue samples were collected to study the population’s genetic structure. The scientists will sum up the results of their work by the New Year.


“The 2014 season was favourable: good weather conditions, and a lot of animals,” said expedition chief Vera Krasnova, PhD (Biology).


“This year, the number of people wishing to observe the whales in their natural habitat was far higher than usual, but unfortunately, you can hardly call this kind of tourism ecological: in areas where the whales give birth to calves and nurture them, any noise can scare the animals off, and they won’t want to return there,” Krasnova said. “The animals were especially disturbed by motorboats that came too close to them.”


Tourists and divers often interfered with the work of researchers, causing whales to immediately swim out to sea at the sound of approaching motorboats.


“Tourists are a very big nuisance factor,” Remennikova says. “It’s become popular to observe white whales in the wild, but nobody respects how unique this place is: it’s their ‘maternity ward’ and ‘kindergarten’ all in one.” The expert believes that this problem is due primarily to a lack of environmental education, especially in companies selling White Sea tours.