THE WHITE WHALE PROGRAMME

Several programmes aiming to study Russia's rare and especially important animals got started in 2008. It was for the first time since the breakup of the Soviet Union that basic zoological research received a powerful backing from the government. The Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS) set up a RAS Standing Expedition to Study Animals Entered on the Red List of Endangered Species of the Russian Federation and Other Especially Important Animals of the Russian Fauna.

 

Several species of big mammals who are seen as especially important and symbolic for Russia, in particular the white whale, or beluga whale, have been chosen for programme purposes. Almost all animals studied under this programme have been entered on the Red List of Threatened Species issued by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Although white whales are not critically endangered or rare species, they are considered to be an indicator species for the marine and Arctic ecosystems since they live in all Arctic seas and the Sea of Okhotsk.

 

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The goal set by the White Whale Programme (WWP) is to study the white whale (Delphinapterus leucas), a representative of family Monodontidae, suborder Odontoceti, order Cetacea.

 

The objective of the Programme is, first, to "carry out an inventory": to study the distribution range, seasonal migrations and the number of white whales in Russian seas; to find out what status each of various white whale populations currently has in their geographic range in Russia; to study their natural habitat, feeding pattern, relationships with other species. In order to accomplish this objective, scientists from the Institute of Environmental and Evolution Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, use leading-edge methods, such as satellite-tracked tagging (telemetry), aerial surveys, veterinary and genetic research. Traditional methods include visual observations from the coast.

 

In the summer 2009 researchers from the Institute of Environmental and Evolution Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, took a complex expedition to the Sea of Okhotsk under the White Whale Programme - 2009. Programme Leader: Lev Mukhametov, Candidate of Science (Biology), a leading researcher at the Institute of Environmental and Evolution Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences.

 

In July-August 2009, not far from Chkalov Island, they attached two Russia-made satellite-tracked tags to white whales called Masha and Dasha and a similar device - made in the U.S. - to a white whale called Kolya. Since then the tags have been transferring data on the migrations of the three white whales via ARGOS satellite system.

 

At present Dasha and Kolya still range not far from Chkalov and Baidukov Islands, while Masha has gone to Nikolai Bay near the Shantar Islands.

 

The tags will track the animals' migrations for another six to nine months and not only identify their migration routes but also help gain a more detailed insight into their relationships, as well as their relationships with white whales of other populations living in the Sea of Okhotsk.

 

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Aerial surveys were conducted for 40 days from the end of July till mid-September 2009. A large group of zoologists kept white whale counts.

 

The project helped create a flying laboratory aboard AN-38 Vostok, the first ever of its kind in the Far East, with state-of-the-art equipment specially installed for the purpose of observing marine mammals. For the first time, and in a relatively short space of time, almost the entire Okhotsk Sea coast, except the Kurile Islands, could be explored. The main places where white whales, seals and whales congregated were identified during this period, contact was established with local research organisations and administrative bodies, which are expected to facilitate further work under the programme. In addition, areas and base stations considered best suited for ground research and base stations were identified, and a large database of photo and video materials was compiled. After the statistical analysis of the material collected, research findings will be made available to the scientific community in the form of articles, graduate works and theses, giving an impetus to the further development of the White Whale Programme in the Sea of Okhotsk area.

 

Alongside research, the Programme addresses popular science, educational and social issues. The project aims not only to alert local people to the problem of conservation of Russia's rare and common species of animals, such as the Amur tiger, snow leopard, Far Eastern leopard and white whale (belukha), but also to raise their awareness about ecology and the behaviour of these animals.

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