Roman Belikov: White whales eager to “talk” to scientists

Roman Belikov: White whales eager to “talk” to scientists

19 October 2017

Scientists have recently received the first “replies” from wild white whales near the Chukotka Peninsula, after playing back recorded signals of their “fellow” whales. In this RIA Novosti interview, Roman Belikov, Ph. D. (Biology), a senior research associate with the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, which studies these animals’ sound-communication patterns, discusses the “replies” of white whales, the use of ferries by whales for their own purposes and “conversations” between baby whales and their mothers.

Question: Could you say a few words about white whale studies near the Chukotka Peninsula and your own projects?


Roman Belikov: This research has resumed our laboratory’s projects of the 1980s and the early 1990s and deals with the acoustic activity of white whales, the sounds they emit and their behavior. Today, our research is part of an ambitious project involving the comprehensive study of the Anadyr white whale population currently being conducted by the Chukotka branch of the TINRO Centre under the supervision of Denis Litovka. In 2013, we began to study the vocal behavior of white whales under the auspices of the Russian Geographical Society. Institute of Oceanology experts deal with bio-acoustics and the photo-identification of the Anadyr white whale population while we study how whales join whale formations, their “speech” patterns, the signals they emit, and what they do in the process. I study the communicative-emotional signals of animals and their spatial orientation using built-in sonars.


Question: What role do white whales’ signals play?


Roman Belikov: Unlike humans, white whales live in a world of sound rather than visual images. They use sounds to find their bearings and to communicate very actively. At least they do this when they form large groups. We work with a large whale formation that feeds in the Anadyr Estuary. Here they hunt fish, primarily chum salmon schools migrating to their spawning grounds. And, as our research shows, they communicate actively.


White whales living in the Anadyr Estuary are very interesting creatures. They belong to the resident Anadyr population but travel over vast distances. They enter the estuary in summer. Many of them virtually live within city limits. When ice-flows form, they enter the Gulf of Anadyr and they can leave for central sea sections and those near the Bering Sea. While there they can meet with other members of the Bering Sea white whale population. They later migrate towards Kamchatka and reach coastal areas of Koryakia. As spring approaches, they return to the Anadyr Estuary, which is their summer residence. Interestingly enough they can enter rivers and even migrate far upstream.


Many animals, at least hundreds of specimens, can stay in the estuary when the animal population peaks and when numerous fish schools enter the vicinity. No one can say for sure how many of them are there because one would need to count the entire population to accomplish this. And animal counting is complicated in the estuary’s murky waters. In the 1940s, researchers said animals formed a living chain there. At that time no one counted white whales using the precise instrumental methods used today.


Question: Why was it decided to resume white whale studies after such a long interval?


Roman Belikov: This is a little-studied population, and people are now extremely interested in beluga whale studies. First of all, this is linked with the active development of the Arctic and white whales are a typical endemic species, although they also live outside the Arctic region. The large white whale population acts as an indicator for detecting negative changes in ecosystems, as these changes quickly impact the state of white whale populations. The Arctic is changing actively, as is the climate: the continental shelf is being developed, fishing is underway, and other anthropogenic factors have also come into play. And white whales are virtually on top of food chains, with only polar bears and killer/orca whales feeding on them. By evaluating the extent of pollution levels in their tissues (and they feed on over 100 species), it is possible to assess the state of the entire ecosystem.


As bioacoustics experts and ethologists, we wanted to find out the scale of their coordinated actions during search-and-hunting missions (when they hunt fish), whether they communicate between themselves, whether they coordinate their actions, and how the hunt proceeds.


Question: Does this mean that they can coordinate their fishing operations, while emitting sounds?


Roman Belikov: After three research seasons we have failed to reach a conclusive decision. Research shows that group-hunting processes often take place. However, white whales are Arctic and northern animals, and they often move rather slowly. It is hard to monitor the entire hunting process even using intricate technical systems. Observers may fail to see the first phase of the hunting process. Or they may see the initial phase but don’t understand what is happening there because this process is rather slow. After that, they lose track of animals and then they see them in some other unexpected location. But the hunt is ending and the fish are about to be caught.


Over ten whales may take part in this final phase. Quite often, those who launch the hunt get nothing. In some cases other animal species, including spotted seals often hunting with white whales, eat the fish.


White whales are “standing idle” when the hunt begins, meaning they are waiting and remain motionless or they are moving very slowly. They form “dragnets” and circles, lines and groups and may start actively pursuing fish schools and herding them towards the shore or the gulf. When there are many of them they yell very actively and we are able to detect numerous sonar signals. During the search, animals emit a series of sounding pulses when they find their bearings and wait for the fish to show up. The number of communicative-emotional signals increases during active hunting, pursuits and the actual catching of fish. In reality, we don’t know what these signals mean, and their coordinating role is not completely clear. Quite possibly, they express emotions in connection with a successful hunt or, maybe, when they are settling squabbles.


Question: Do communicative sounds being emitted by white whales differ in terms of their intonations?


Roman Belikov: This is a complicated issue. White whales have one of the richest vocal “repertoires.” This is largely explained by the fact that they emit complicated and multi-component signals in terms of their structure. On the one hand, there are pulse signals, including squeaks and crackling sounds. On the other hand, they emit multi-tone whistling sounds, which are long and continuous signals. They can also become superimposed because white whales have two sonic generators or two sets of vocal cords. They can simultaneously emit two different types of signals that form a combined one.


Yelena Panova, a leading Russian expert on the bioacoustics of white whales, believes that the animals perceive precisely this combination as a full-fledged signal. However, they can use their components separately. White whales can use the pulse component alone during confidential short-distance “conversations.” And they whistle during long-distance “conversations” because these sounds have a longer range.


Contact signals belong to a special group of an animal’s acoustic signals. These loud stereotype signals are often emitted in series or bursts. It is now believed that white whales do not know these signals from birth, that they learn them later in life and use these signals to communicate with their fellow whales. Baby white whales use these contact sounds very actively to maintain communications with their mothers. Valeria Vergara of the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver (Canada), was the first to detect these signals being emitted by white whales.


Question: What type of sound did you broadcast during the experiment when you received a reply from white whales?


Roman Belikov: We broadcast a contact sound. In our opinion, they play an individual identifying function, but researchers are divided on this aspect. We used a signal of a young female white whale named Dasha at a dolphinarium in the village of Nilmoguba on the White Sea coast. We involved her in sound experiments, and it turned out that Dasha mostly replied to her own contact signals and those of other white whales whom she knew. She used her own contact sound while responding.


The first experiments, which were aimed at studying the response of white whales to their own signals being played back to them, were conducted in the late 1970s. US scientist David Morgan worked with captive animals and later started dealing with wild animals. His work was devoted to playbacks. He first recorded signals and then played them back. But technical systems of that period were completely different then and there were problems with sound analysis. The main result obtained was that white whales could hear him and responded.


We have made attempts to play back the signals in the White Sea stretching back to 2007, when we collected signals at the dolphinarium in the village of Nilmoguba and on Solovki. The experiments involved wild white whales and produced negative results. They either ignored us or became scared, and eventually left the vicinity and fell silent. So we stopped those experiments. Our colleague from the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution recently played back contact signals to captive white whales and they started responding actively. But when we tried to do the same to wild animals in the White Sea we failed to get a response once again. 


The situation is different with the Chukotka white whale population. Last year, we also broadcast recorded signals to them, and their initial response was negative. They fell silent and even switched off their sonars. This year we changed the experiment’s concept. We played back the signals when the animals were located far away from the emitter and we tried to establish gradual contact with them. In the long run, they started reacting.


Today, this is a pilot project as the experiment’s data has not yet been processed and we still don’t know to what extent their acoustic activity coinciding in time with the playing back of the signals is a response to our activities and that they are really contacting us. Quite possibly, they are not replying to us but simply communicating with one another, “discussing” the sound they have heard and deciding what to do later on.


This year, we decided that they heard us, to say the least, and that they are making an active vocal response.


Question: Do you cooperate with foreign scientists studying white whales?


Roman Belikov: We would like to carry out joint projects but we and our foreign colleagues have not understood each other very much in the past. Considering that leading foreign researchers dealing with the acoustic behavior of white whales mostly work at aquariums, including those in Valencia and Vancouver and that we study wild white whales, it was clear we had few points of contact.


Quite possibly this is linked with the fact that the meaning of white whales’ signals seriously depends on context. When we showed signals we recorded in the White Sea to our colleagues, they often replied that such signals denoted aggression. But what aggression can one talk about when we were recording mothers with their offspring? While working with captive white whales we learned that signals deemed as aggressive were actually an invitation to play. They even combine this jaw-clapping sound with various vocal signals.


Question: How do wild white whales react to humans?


Roman Belikov: White whales are rather independent animals: they are not really interested in humans and do not strive to communicate with them. Communication within their own species is enough for white whales. Their reaction to a human being is mostly limited to the evaluation of the potential danger a human presents. Whales can swim more closely to a boat approaching their pod, carefully inspect it, and examine using echolocation. However, even animals afraid of watercrafts can gradually get used to them. For example, in the Anadyr Estuary, Chukotka man’s presence has gradually increased and the local white whales have already grown accustomed to watercrafts.


An interesting thing has come to our attention. The passenger ferry boat Kamchatka has been running between the two shores of the Anadyr Estuary for many decades. White whales have become used to this ferry: they recognise it, they know when it arrives, and how it is moored. When we first boarded the ferry, and it had just left the dock, we were surprised to see that, instead of swimming away from it, white whales darted for it and started using it as a wall to herd fish against it. Fish get scared of the ferry and swim in the other direction, where white whales are already waiting for them.


Still, the Anadyr animals are wary of close human contact: they swim away, dive and breathe through their blowholes, which are the only part they raise above the surface of water in this case. However, white whales act differently in various habitats. For example, on the Pomorsky coast of the White Sea where whaling was carried out a few decades ago, white whales still react negatively toward approaching boats. Perhaps it is because the animals rest there or because of bad memories. There might still be some whales that remember the times of whaling and this negative experience prevents them from being friendly to people. What repels wild white whales greatly is any attempt to swim together with them, or to invade their community.


In this case, white whales fall silent at once and often activate their echolocation. As a result, the whales are forced to leave the habitats that are so important to them.


Question: When will humans be able to communicate with white whales?


Roman Belikov: There is still a lot of work to be done …If we remember David Morgan, he tried to do this 30-40 years ago and didn’t really succeed. Perhaps, it will be a long time until we can finally communicate with white whales. On the other hand, we also weren’t successful in communicating with white whales at first, but later Faina Melnikova achieved such positive results in a dolphinarium. In the beginning it did not work in the wild, but then the situation changed in Chukotka. It is too early to make conclusions about this. We should analyse the information we have and seek the best approaches for interacting with white whales. And, more importantly, we should do it carefully in order not to frighten them. But how can this be done when white whales are so independent? And, by the way, we are still far from understanding how some basic mechanisms, such as expression of emotions, are encoded in their brains, and what roles genetics and social learning play in the development of the signals they make.


We have studied the one signal that is used in almost all populations of white whales. We also watched two males, eight to ten years old, who had been caught in the Sea of Okhotsk and lived in captivity for a long time. It turns out that they use the same signals as the wild white whales whose sounds Soviet researchers recorded when they just started studying white whales in the 70s and 80s. Although the animals had acquired some new experience living with bottlenose dolphins for a long time and hadn’t communicated with wild white whales, these basic signals had remained intact. Perhaps they are defined by some genetic factors. Still it does not mean that they can’t develop new signals. They just require the appropriate conditions and a teacher.


Question: And it is possible at all to establish communication between human beings and white whales?


Roman Belikov: We strongly hope that it is. To some extent, it is possible. But the question is how full this interaction could be. We would very much like to achieve this. After all, most of the researchers who study dolphin communication started studying science because they wanted to communicate with dolphins.


Question: What information would you share with white whales if full interaction became possible?


Roman Belikov: Something positive. It would be amazing if they did not fear us so that we could co-exist peacefully, because these animals are very attractive and they are faced with all sorts of threats in the modern world. We wouldn’t like them to suffer because of their direct encounter and communication with people. I hope that by interacting with humans they would experience positive emotions.