Tales of the white whale

Tales of the white whale

27 February 2015

Anton Chernetsky, PhD Biology, delivered a lecture entitled “Tales of the White Whale” at the State Darwin Museum in Moscow on 26 February as part of the exhibition, “Our Neighbours: Walruses, Seals and Polar Bears”. Chernetsky is a researcher with the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology at the Russian Academy of Sciences and member of the Marine Mammal Council. He has participated in over 20 field expeditions to study white, or beluga, whales.


Before talking about white whales and related studies by Russian biologists in the White Sea, Chernetsky spoke about cetaceans in general, focusing on their unique cognitive abilities and how quickly they learn new things. "In short, they are very smart,” he told the young audience members.


In the body of his lecture, Chernetsky focused on the most interesting aspects of the lives of White Sea beluga whales: their “language” that exists in the form of specific signalling systems, which researchers from all over the world are trying to decode; the possible reasons why they gather in coastal areas off the Solovetsky Islands; their seasonal migrations and changes in their migration routes; the best methods for studying them in their natural environment, such as underwater photography and sound recordings; changes that beluga calves undergo as they age (born black, they gradually turn white, a safer colour, over time, for reasons that continue to baffle researchers).


During his lecture, Chernetsky showed photos of gatherings of beluga whales in the White Sea taken from the air, as well as a short documentary about the work of the biologists at Cape Beluzhy on the Solovetsky Islands.


At the end of his fascinating discussion, he played an underwater audio recording of beluga “conversations”, accompanied by a detailed visualisation of the sound waves. According to Chernetsky, the ability to rapidly visualise the sound using available technology is an important step in the quest to interpret the language of the white whale.