White Sea beluga whales counted using quadcopters

White Sea beluga whales counted using quadcopters

27 September 2016

A regular expedition to study and preserve the summer mating pod of beluga whales on Solovetsky Island near Cape Beluzhy has been completed. The participants, employees of the marine mammal lab at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Shirshov Institute of Oceanology and members of the Marine Mammal Council, collected extensive data on the biology and acoustic signaling of beluga whales.


This year, project participants conducted an annual survey of the number and age of beluga whales in the Solovetsky pod. The monitoring was carried out not only by visual observation, but also using quadcopters. The scientists developed a basic rule for using quadcopters in order not to disturb the mammals when monitoring: the remote-controlled devices should fly at least at a height of 30 metres; otherwise, beluga whales swim a safe distance away due to the noise made by quadcopter propeller blades.


The scientists collected four beluga whale tissue samples, which will later be sent away for genetic and toxicological tests. Over the last five years, the tissue bank of the White Sea beluga whales has obtained 30 samples. Also, one of the main objectives of the expedition was achieved – recording the acoustic signals produced by beluga whales in different behavioural situations. The scientists recorded over 40 hours of signals while simultaneously filming the beluga whales’ behaviour; now they will use the data to find sonic markers of individual behaviour manifestations of beluga whales.


According to preliminary data, there were 50-70 beluga whales in the waters of Cape Beluzhy this summer, including over 10 newborn calves. The scientists continued to work on the photo-identification of the Solovetsky pod of beluga whales: 54 whales were identified, including some that had been recorded in the surveyed waters in past seasons. In addition, the scientists managed to track mother beluga whales and their newborns during a month and to take pictures of calves at different stages of maturation.


“This year, the Solovetsky beluga whales were extremely popular among travellers and tourists. Every day, tourists sailed on boats and walked along the ecological path to see them. The most visitors ‒ 140 people ‒ were here on 24 July,” said Dr Vera Krasnova, a biologist and researcher at the marine mammal lab of the Institute of Oceanology and member of the Marine Mammal Council. “Unfortunately, not all tour operators observe the boating rules, to keep away from the mammals and not to cross their paths. In such cases, the scientists had to ask boats to move a safe distance away.”


An expedition to Cape Beluzhy is held every year as part of the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s (IFAW) White Sea Beluga Whale Project.