Expert: Transportation of the remaining Srednyaya Bay beluga whales must be speeded up

Expert: Transportation of the remaining Srednyaya Bay beluga whales must be speeded up

20 September 2019

On 6 August 2019, Viktor Nikiforov, environment protection project coordinator of the Marine Mammals scientific expedition centre, took part in the release of three killer whales previously kept in Srednyaya Bay, the Primorye Territory, where 75 beluga whales still remain.


Question: Mr Nikiforov, please tell us how you ended up joining the team working on the release of the marine mammals?


Viktor Nikiforov: The first and second time, killer and beluga whales were released without the involvement of public organisations, only the National Fishery and Oceanography Research Institute and hunters took part. In order to confirm that the whales had really been released, it was suggested that a video recording of the release be shown to a team of experts who were trusted by public organisations. I was invited to the institute as a member of the Marine Mammal Council. Along with other experts, I watched the video, made several notes, requested additional footage from a quadrotor and then confirmed that six beluga whales had indeed been released. After that, I offered to take part in the next release to make recommendations on how to make standard footage so that no one would doubt its authenticity.


Question: How were the animals transported and released into the wild?


Viktor Nikiforov: We met the barge with the killer whales late at night in the Inokentyevka village. It travelled from Khabarovsk along the Amur River for several days. I was allowed aboard and could observe how the three killer whales in containers were loaded from the barge onto lorries. Almost all the water was drained out of the containers to make them weigh less during the loading, but quickly added again afterwards. The lorries left for the release spot on Perovsky Cape, and we returned to the district centre.


The distance between Nikolayevsk-on-Amur and the Sea of Okhotsk is about 70 km. We and employees of the institute’s press service, photographers and camera crew left on August 6 at 7.30 am to get there at 9.45 am. The work was in full swing when we arrived. We were shown the hill where we could film the release, but when I asked to get closer to get a direct shot of the process, I was told not to interfere with the experts during the veterinary checkup and that I would be allowed to be there when satellite tags were attached. Taking photos of the process was not allowed.


After the vets checked on the animals and took blood samples, I climbed into a lorry where a small killer whale and its trainers were in a transportation tub. It was at the very moment when a satellite tag, made in Russia, was being attached. It didn’t look like the process was bothering the whale.


After that, we went to the second whale, and examined and photographed the tag. This was when I was called back to the first lorry leaving for the point of release. A crane was placed near the water, and the whale was quickly put into a special sling. Then it was lowered into the water and moved into a cage on a catamaran. It happened very quickly; the trainer brigade worked seamlessly and professionally, and the entire process was recorded from land and from a copter.


Once all the three killer whales were in the cage, they were moved about 600 metres into the sea and released; and the observers were taken to the catamaran by boat to have a look at the animals, but they had already travelled quite far: they were swimming in circles, jumping together, playing and enjoying their freedom.


Question: Did you make any recommendations for the next release after that?


Viktor Nikiforov: Yes, after I’d seen it for myself, I compiled recommendations on the release procedure and the filming.  This time, the camera crew set the timing so that it will be clear when the filming was carried out.


However, the main thing is that there are still 75 beluga whales in Srednyaya Bay, but there is little time left before it gets cold, so the release process must be speeded up. Only one trip was scheduled for September, and suddenly there was a big flood on the Amur River. Now the National Fishery and Oceanography Research Institute says it will revise the schedule of the whales’ transportation and release into the Sea of Okhotsk. This is the right decision, because, according to the current schedule, only four containers can be put on the transport barge, with three whales in each. And even if there were four animals in each container (which is not advisable because they would be jam-packed in there), only 16 whales could be moved at one time.


It would take five trips to move 75 animals this way, and there is a three-week break between each transportation. Let’s see: the transportation on 16 September was cancelled, and there are four more scheduled for early October, late October and early November. However, the weather will only worsen. The summer in the Far East is quite short; the average temperature in Nikolayevsk-on-Amur is about 1.5 degrees in October and -8 in November, which is not good for release. We have to admit that it is impossible to move all the animals according to the current schedule.


Question: Do you think there is any way out of this situation?


Viktor Nikiforov: I think it is high time to look for a large ship that can take onboard as many containers with animals as possible. We have already received an offer to use a Navy vessel, but it is impossible to move killer whales in this way because they suffer from sea sickness. Beluga whales are more stable, so they can be moved aboard a large ship; so I think we should return to this offer. Maybe the Pacific Ocean Navy can take part in the process, or we can hire a commercial vessel. The most important thing is that none of the whales remain in Srednyaya Bay for the winter.


Question: Will a second winter in captivity be dangerous for the remaining beluga whales?


Viktor Nikiforov: Before the release, trainers began to wean the whales off contact with people so that they could live and hunt on their own. If they remain in Srednyaya Bay for another seven or eight months, they will have to get accustomed to people again, and the more they get accustomed to this, the less chance they will have to re-adapt to living in the wild.


Question: Is it possible to track the beluga whales released into the Sea of Okhotsk via the satellite tags?


Viktor Nikiforov: To be honest, the beluga whales do not need satellite tags. The existing type of tags works for four to five months and then ceases functioning because the battery runs out. However, they remain on the animal for five years or longer after that. I would only attach one or two tags during each release, but in future, in my opinion, we should switch to non-invasive research methods.