Satellite tags offer new opportunities for white whale research

Satellite tags offer new opportunities for white whale research

7 April 2017

The satellite-linked systems for observing marine mammals allow researchers to make discoveries that would have been impossible in the past. Alexander Salman, member of the Marine Mammal Council and General Director of ES-PAS, which manufactures satellite-linked radio beacons to observe animals, talks about the use of radio tags to monitor white whales. 

- How did you get involved in white whale projects?

Alexander Salman: In 2007, we teamed up with the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution at the Russian Academy of Sciences to carry out white whale research. Those were our first projects and later we switched to seals and ringed seals – those projects we carried out jointly with other research institutes.


Normally, researches tag white whales by shooting from air guns or crossbows. To attach a tag, they have to swim up to a whale to be close to the animal when it comes to the surface. Everything depends on how you shoot, where you hit the animal, where your boat is drifting relative to the animal, as well as on the moment the animal comes to the surface and whether the bolt reaches the target or whether the harpoon sticks securely in the whale. When one has to address so many issues simultaneously, the result is likely to fall short of expectations. These tag tools are good, indeed, but they do not always prove long-lasting and effective – far from it.  We have also made several attempts to make these radio beacons but so far, the tags that we fitted using a crossbow didn’t work longer than three weeks.


White whales are not the largest whales, so you can capture one. Of course, when you hold an animal in your arms, you can fasten a tag much more firmly, fixing it to the rudimentary back fin using a time-proven method, which works.   


As a matter of fact, the idea for creating tag tools with radio beacons in Russia was prompted by this first white whale research.


Did you work with similar tools made in the West earlier?

Alexander Salman: Yes, I did until I realised that it was difficult to deliver them to the country – I mean going through all the formalities associated with importing goods. So, to promote this area of research, we were tasked with developing tools that would be made in Russia and we delivered on this task. We tested our first tags on white whales and the results were good enough from the very beginning. Today, we have the experience of attaching transmitters to white whales in several regions. It’s really interesting to have animals fitted with similar tags in various geographic zones.     


We tagged white whales in the north of Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Okhotsk, on the western coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, in the White Sea and in the Gulf of Ob – that is, we’re gradually expanding geography.


- How long do the tags tracking white whales work?

Alexander Salman: We’ve managed to ensure that tags remained in working condition for up to seven and even ten months. White whales are a convenient object of scientific study as researchers can capture them, hold as long as necessary, attach radio beacons and then let them go. White whale research tends to produce qualitative results, which means obtaining many highly accurate indicators every day. Later, a tag’s fastener is gradually released from the animal’s body.


So, if you capture a white whale and fit it with a tag, you can monitor its migration in detail. For example, thanks to tags, we have learned that many males, who spend the summer in the White Sea, do not travel to the Barents Sea for the winter, as was believed earlier.  


- Which white whale projects are currently in the pipeline and which do you plan to carry out in the future?

Alexander Salman: In my view, given the current technological level, the most interesting area is integrated use of various types of satellite data. I mean not just tracking an animal but analysing the results together with the entire pool of data on other studies, including the movement of ice, temperatures, plankton, water salinity and sea currents. In addition to allowing the scientists to gain a better insight into an animal’s behaviour, this analysis will help them understand why an animal behaves this or that way. For example, similar work was carried out by researchers from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution. They studied the connection between the migration of white whales and the oceanographic situation in the Sea of Okhotsk and how the changing marine environment affected the migration of animals. Could it be that white whales seek specific temperatures or water salinity or ice conditions that are the most suitable for them? However, this requires top-notch skills, so to say.