What the silence of white whales tells us

What the silence of white whales tells us

13 July 2015

Varya and Mikhei are two white whales who were exposed to seismic tomography waves for five days under the supervision of researchers as part of a research experiment. How did their reactions change? How quickly did the animals adapt to the noise? Why were they silent during and after the experiment? Dmitry Glazov, lead engineer of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution (IPEE RAS) and deputy head of the White Whale Programme at the IPEE RAS Permanent Expedition shares with us the preliminary results of his research expedition to the White Sea.

Question: What are the key areas of your research?


Dmitry Glazov: Studies of marine mammals, including white whales, as part of the Severstov Institute’s Permanent Expedition are divided into two major areas, field and laboratory studies.


The lab work focuses on studying the physiology, the behaviour, and the sleep patterns of white whales, as well as the impact of noise on these animals. The studies are conducted mainly at our institute’s Utrish Marine Station outside Novorossiysk.


One of the most important tasks facing the experts today is to understand how various kinds of noise generated by submarines, ships or seismic exploration impact marine mammals. In this regard, the white whale is a good subject for study, as it does well in captivity and lives in all the seas of the Russian Arctic and Far East.


On the one hand, this is basic research, but there’s also an applied component. Powerful airguns are used in oil and gas exploration of the ocean floor. They take a shot, and special equipment then captures the signal reflected from the bottom. The geologists use this signal to identify mineral deposits. The sound of the shot is very loud. According to international standards, there are certain safety areas around the ships. Whenever a marine mammal shows up in that area, all the work must stop and the guns turned off. These areas have been identified based on the behavioural responses by the animals during such work. We are trying to explore not only behavioural responses of the white whales but also their physiological responses, and identify the effects of noise exposure in animals of different ages.


Our field work involves aerial surveys and marine and land expeditions to collect the material, which is then analysed at our institute’s labs. We study the distribution, the abundance, the diseases and the population patterns of the white whale groups across the Russian Arctic from the White Sea to the Sea of ​​Okhotsk.


Question: When do you normally go into the field?


Dmitry Glazov: The thing is that the beginning of the field season varies across the seas. For example, the season in the White Sea starts in March-April, whereas in the Arctic, marine expeditions are possible from June to November. In the Sea of Okhotsk, the season runs from mid-July to October. Everything depends on the ice and weather conditions.


Our first expedition to the White Sea ended recently.


Question: What was the goal of this expedition?


Dmitry Glazov: We tried to assess whether the data on the effects of noise on white whales obtained by our colleagues (i.e., groups led by Vladimir Popov, DSc in Biology, and Oleg Lyamin, PhD in Biology) at the Utrish Marine Station in 2010-2014, can be verified and replicated on white whales held in captivity in the White Sea. It was necessary to describe the behavioural and physiological reactions of the white whales to the seismic noise and to study the dependence of this reaction on the noise parameters.


While working in conjunction with the geologists, we tried to determine critical values ​​of the noise intensity for different types of animal reactions, the dependence of their reaction on the intensity and duration of the noise and individual characteristics of the animals.


This is the first time work was conducted in these conditions. We tried to lay the groundwork for future systemic work based on the cooperation of biologists, geologists, marine mammal trainers and underwater specialists.


Question: Where did the studies take place and how much time did they take?


Dmitry Glazov: The research took place in the White Sea. Experts from the Severtsov Institute and geologists from the Centre for Marine Research, and Moscow State University’s White Sea Biological Station went to the village of Nilmoguba where two white whales – Varvara and Mikhei – are kept in enclosures at the White Sea Environmental Centre and the St Petersburg Dolphinarium. Both belugas were caught in the Sea of Okhotsk in different years. The female, who is four years old, came from the Sea of Okhotsk in 2013. The male spent 15 years at the St Petersburg Dolphinarium. Trainers from the White Sea Environmental Centre are currently working with them, preparing them for work in the dolphinarium. 


Question: Who participated in the expedition?


Dmitry Glazov: We have good relationships with the geologists who provided us with working "weapons-grade" equipment and a ship.


Marine mammal expert Oleg Lyamin from the Utrish Marine Station led the biological part of the work on behalf of our institute. Many skilled professionals, experts in their respective fields, such as Nikolai Shabalin, Director of the Moscow State University’s Centre for Marine Studies, Mikhail Tokarev, Director General of the Moscow State University’s Centre for Seismic Data Analysis, and geophysicist Alexander Tokarev, took part in this work. Engineer Evgeny Nazarenko from our institute was in charge of the technical support.


Three observers recorded the white whales’ behaviour during the experiment, namely, Alyona Vishnyakova, a student of the Moscow State University’s Biology Department, Taisiya Glazova, a 10th grader from Kurchatov High School, and marine mammal trainer Faina Melnikova.


The employees of the White Sea Environmental Centre – Director General Alexei Timshin, trainer Maria Khrobostova and assistant trainer Yanina Moravets – were in charge of handling the animals.


Question: How did the research go?


Dmitry Glazov: We used the first two days to observe Varya and Mikhei in their natural habitat without any interference on our part. Then we experimented with the sound for five days. We used the week following the acoustic experiments to look for changes in the animals’ reactions.


During the acoustic experiment, we played back the sounds of seismic exploration to belugas and recorded their behavioural responses and changes in their breathing patterns.


Prior to our expedition, back during our work at the Utrish Marine Station, our colleagues led by Popov determined the frequencies and the intensity of the sound that the belugas are most sensitive to. The issue was about sensitivity, not mortal danger to the animals.


Question: Sound can kill a white whale?


Dmitry Glazov: Often, dead whales and dolphins wash ashore following military exercises or the use of strong sources of underwater noise, such as sonars, radars or seismic guns. The animals are stunned, lose spatial orientation, feel stressed and lose their cubs. Efforts are underway globally to protect marine mammals from loud industrial noises. Their ears are their main instrument for orientation, communication and their main sense organ. Stunned animals lose spatial orientation and die.


We selected sounds that don’t stun belugas but elicit reactions.


Question: What have you found out as a result of the experiment?


Dmitry Glazov: The data are still being analysed, but we have already found out that the belugas react even to low-intensity noise, which we thought they wouldn’t react to.


Our geologist colleagues determined that in the place where the animals were present, the sound spread unevenly: it is more intense at medium and low depths than on the surface. During the experiment, the belugas tried to keep closer to the surface, thus avoiding excessive noise.


We felt that the belugas adapted fairly quickly to sounds of the same intensity, but not always. For example, one day we exposed them to a certain noise level for one hour. The belugas showed some disturbance. However, the next day, as they listened to the same sounds, their response was milder.


In addition to assessing changes in behaviour, we also tracked the animals’ breathing patterns before, during and after the experiment. This time, we didn’t have the chance to take blood samples or the heart rate to determine the stress level, because wireless sensors that are safe for belugas are still being tested at Utrish.


The records of respiratory pauses gave us the big picture. We made a graph that shows that typical beluga breathing pause patterns break when the noise begins. Normal breathing is resumed quite a while after the experiment, which means that the animals don’t get back to normal immediately, and their heartbeat patterns also change gradually.


It was important to track the belugas’ reaction not only during the experiment, but also after it. In Nilmoguba, animals are regularly trained. Trainer Maria Khrobostova is familiar with her trainees and can easily notice all the changes in the belugas’ behaviour on the day after the experiment. It helped us to determine whether they were restless, refused to eat or show other signs of disturbance during training. However, they never rejected food and ate well.


Question: What kind of equipment was used in research?


Dmitry Glazov: The enclosure, which was about 20 metres across, was equipped with a receiver that registered the actual sound that reached the animals as it came from the source. We also used sound detectors to record the voices of the animals. However, Varya and Mikhei were silent.


Question: Why is that? After all, belugas are known for being "talkative". They are even referred to as "sea canaries".


Dmitry Glazov: That’s the point. That’s why we were surprised by their silence. We managed to get them "talking" only a few days later, when we played back their own voices to them.


Of course, their silence could be due to the fact that Mikhei was brought in only recently, and they just didn’t have much to talk about.


Question: Was it a psychological reaction?


Dmitry Glazov: Not really. Psychology is a science that focuses on studying the origins, the development and the functioning of the human psyche and psychic activity. The silence of the belugas is a behavioural, not psychological, response.


Researchers are trying to decode and interpret the white whales’ behaviour, but they haven’t made a lot of headway in this area because even the most basic things, such as the voices and the sounds of marine mammals, have not yet been decoded, and we don’t know what they are "saying" or why they are doing it.


We understand that they have individual signatures, such as names or autographs, but we don’t know for sure when and how they use them.


Question: Do you plan to go see Mikhei and Varya?


Dmitry Glazov: By all means. But first, we will process the materials that we already have, prepare a report, write an article and look at the reviews. Perhaps, we will repeat the experiment at the Utrish Marine Station.


To be able to come up with any major conclusions, we first need to gather statistical data, which includes a larger number of animals and a larger number of experiments under different conditions.


After the materials of the expedition have been analysed, we will develop a plan for an experiment for the next few years.


Question: What else do researchers do to protect belugas during geological prospecting?


Dmitry Glazov: In April, we launched courses for marine mammal observers during engineering and geological prospecting off the shelf in conjunction with the Marine Mammal Council and the Centre for Marine Studies at the Moscow State University and the Severtsov Institute’s support.


Oil companies and environmental intermediaries who work off the shelf of the Russian Arctic and Far East have until today used a variety of adapted foreign techniques to protect marine mammals and birds. This is the wrong thing to do, because Russian seas, especially the Arctic ones, have their specifics. They are different from the Gulf of Mexico or the North Sea in terms of their conditions and resident species.


Previously, we didn’t have observers in Russia. People got employed as observers if they had a degree in zoology or biology. But that’s not enough to qualify for such a work. If an animal dies, the observer is held accountable by the client, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the law. If a rare species dies, then it becomes a crime. The observer must be properly qualified, that’s why we organised such courses.


Question: How is the training organised?


Dmitry Glazov: It’s a three-day course that includes theory and practice. The practical part involves operating the equipment and filling out forms, because observers are required to keep records.


At the end, the employees take a test. If they pass it, they are issued a certificate entitling them to work as observers.


This job is in demand now because engineering and exploration work in the Arctic is on the rise. It is imperative to take timely measures to protect marine mammals. Of course, we think not only about the beluga whales but all other water denizens as well. This is a major effort, which will continue.


The first cycle of studies that we conducted this spring revealed certain flaws. Currently, our employees, who, incidentally, are taking active part in expeditions on exploration ships, are finalising their lectures and demos, so as to be able to start a new cycle of training in August and train as many qualified and responsible MMOs for 2016 season as possible.