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Russian Arctic a haven for belugas — for now

Summer doesn't last long on the edge of the Arctic circle, but on the remote Solovetsky Island on Russia's White Sea it marks the remarkable return every year of Beluga whales just meters from the shore.
/ Source: Reuters

Summer doesn't last long on the edge of the Arctic circle, but on the remote Solovetsky Island on Russia's White Sea it marks the remarkable return every year of Beluga whales just meters from the shore.

Scientists say it is the only place in the world where the whales come so close. Like many whales worldwide, these belugas are threatened — not by hunting but by the quest for energy and people's gradual encroachment on their habitat through shipping.

The whales come most days in good weather. Highly gregarious, the adult white mammals frolic and twist together with their calves, sometimes in schools of 50, lazily breaking the surface with their long backs, before diving underwater again at a location now known as Beluga Cape.

Described by environmentalists as one of Russia's national treasures, the beluga — which resemble large dolphins — will be fighting for survival as the Arctic develops and shipping, energy projects and pollution threaten their natural habitat, Russian scientists say.

"The greatest dangers for beluga whales are oil and gas — energy development, marine traffic and even ecotourism," said Roman Belikov, of the marine mammal group at the Institute of Oceanology in the Russian Academy of Sciences.

He fears that unless properly managed, tourists seeking to enjoy the wildlife could disturb the whales.

Belikov has spent every summer for the last eight years with a small band of marine biologists studying the belugas. He is optimistic that given time, the whales can adapt.

"They can learn to accept motor engines, if fishermen are careful with the distance and speed. It's like people in cities adopting to the nearby sound from underground trains," he said.

Climate change may also threaten the belugas, but so far, there is no conclusive proof whether warming seas or changing currents are affecting them, he says.

Like the other biologists, Belikov talks affectionately of the animals and willingly spends two months in basic conditions with no electricity, running water or toilets, so he can observe them.

Eyes, ears on colony
Wading out to the observation tower on the foreshore of the cape every day the whales appear, his colleague and team leader, Vera Krasnova, is returning for the 12th summer.

Her husband is also a researcher on the island and they work together, leaving their young daughter with her grandmother in Krasnoyarsk, East Siberia. Krasnova laughs when asked to explain why she finds the belugas so fascinating, as they swirl around in the sea, meters away.

"These are animals with a very graphic, very vivid social organization, it's interesting to study their behavior in a group, to see how they come together," she says.

In eight colonies around the world, there are an estimated 100,000 belugas, with 2,000 in the White Sea.

Krasnova and her three assistants spend hours making careful notes of individual animals, with nicknames like 'quasimodo' for a male and 'belle' for a female.

Belikov, an acoustic expert, has been trying to crack beluga communications, but says he still has a lot to learn.

"They're very noisy and when they gather here for reproduction, they communicate with each other very intensively," he says. The observation tower fills with these sounds, transmitted from the seashore by special microphones.

"They have a very diverse vocal repertory, with many different sounds, like whistles, squeaks and howls. Some sounds seem like a baby crying or a bird when it chirrups," he says.

Belikov recoils when asked if he believes the whales should be fished commercially for their meat. "Eat them? They are very kind, clever and nice. I think it's impossible, I see no reason to do it — why? why?" he asks.

Help from animal group
The project receives aid from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which shares the concerns for the belugas' natural habitat as Russia plans to develop energy reserves in the Barents Sea, said Igor Belyatskiy, IFAW's spokesman.

"Like any major oil and gas development, it might pollute the sea with intense ship and air traffic, with a lot of noise. The whales are very sensitive to any kind of noise," he said.

Belyatskiy said that Russia's biggest challenge is not an absence of laws, but implementing existing controls in full.

"People are starting to understand that the main treasure of Russia is its nature, after the people. Oil and gas will disappear, but nature, and these animals must stay."

IFAW hopes the entire Solevetsky island will also be declared a UNESCO heritage site, as well as the famous monastery on its Southern tip which was converted into Stalin's first major gulag and lies close to the belugas' isolated playground.

"We have these dark times behind us. And its good to come here and see a corner of untouched nature. You have a feeling of a long culture and of nature — still mostly untouched."