Vancouver Aquarium associate researcher Dr. Valeria Vergara is a behavioural ecologist now spending the summer in the Arctic. Based at Arctic Watch on Somerset Island, Dr. Vergara is using her knowledge about beluga calls, gained by studying beluga whales at the Vancouver Aquarium, to learn more about wild Arctic populations, and how their melting environment is affecting them. The study is funded by the Vancouver Aquarium and supported by the Arctic Watch Beluga Foundation. Read her blog post from Week 1 here.

The Arctic days come and go, the temperature inches up little by little, it is now a smoldering 3°C at night instead of the -3°C last week (thermal sensation -7°C!). The Northwest Passage, which the belugas must navigate to get to the inlet, is still frozen. Until a few days ago the ice was so thick that part of the track for the Northwest Passage Marathon, North America’s most Northerly Marathon, was laid out on the ice. This event, conceived by Richard Weber (one of my hosts at Arctic Watch) and now on its seventh year, attracts marathon runners from all over the world. I had the pleasure of meeting some of these passionate runners, and volunteered to be one of the “spotters”: a person that follows the runners along the entire marathon course, to offer polar bear protection and carry gear and food. Volunteering for this event would give me the chance to see for myself the “status” of the Northwest Passage. And I saw! If I could drive a 600 kg Gator over that ice, and I am here to tell the story, then that ice was thick!  It would still be a while until open water channels to the inlet become large enough to let the whales through.

Vancouver Aquarium Arctic Research

Driving a Gator on the Northwest Passage

In the days that followed, we equipped my yurt to be a “research base.” With help from Josée Auclair —also of Arctic Watch — I used the gator to move two tables from the lodge, over creeks, snowbanks and hills (an unusual “moving” procedure, to put it mildly) to my yurt. We placed the large utilities table inside the yurt, providing a good space for all my acoustic equipment, and the smallest of the tables outside the yurt, a terrific outdoors office and, with the spotting scope positioned next to me, the perfect lookout for whales and bears. I have also been using the powerful spotting scope to check the ice condition at the entrance to the inlet, for signs of open water. Four days of stormy weather after the marathon were a blessing, as the rain and the strong winds melted and shifted the ice considerably. The inlet is now suddenly painted a Caribbean turquoise: the effect of the blue ice, cleared of the top-snow. Promising deep cracks and shallow lagoons are starting to form everywhere.  The ice on the upper half of Cunningham Inlet, the beluga nursery grounds, has melted. Rivers and creeks are flooding the valley under the lodge.

Arctic Research by Dr. Vergara, Vancouver Aquarium

View from my Arctic office. Photo Credit: Gretchen Freund

Determined not to get discouraged by the temporary absence of whales, I have been getting to know the area and its wildlife. The desolation of this Arctic island is deceptive, as it harbors a richness, for those who look closely, that gets into your soul. Millennia-old bowhead whale bones, including a giant skull, litter the “badlands,” an eight thousand year-old muddy ocean floor that, due to the post-glacial rebound effect, has risen two hundred feet above sea level. I have watched rough-legged hawks guarding their nests, delicate snow buntings foraging on the tundra rocks, and curious ringed seals popping their heads out of the ice holes. I have gotten acquainted with the marvelous woolly bear caterpillar, a creature that freezes solid every winter, and that could wait as long as seven years before it has eaten enough to metamorphose into a moth.

Whale bones in the Arctic

8000 year-old bowhead whale bones.

Arctic hares visit my yurt every day, arctic foxes leave signs of their presence, and herds of muskoxen roam the land — one could spot them on just about any hike into the valleys, hills and ridges that surround the Arctic Watch Lodge. They are painfully shy of humans (they have been hunted on this island), so the trick is to approach them downwind, belly-crawling on the wet tundra ever so slowly to a good vantage point. After an hour of such an exercise in stealth, a small group of us were rewarded yesterday with a good, long look at four of these mythological-looking creatures, their woolly coats flying in the wind.

Muskoxen in the Arctic.

Watching the muskoxen stroll by.

I can only imagine what this place will be like when the belugas make their appearance and fill the air with their cacophony of sounds (which can reportedly be heard above water). So where are the whales? “I wish I could find out if there are belugas waiting nearby for the ice to let them through,” I said wistfully to Richard and Josee. “How safe would it be to hike on the sea ice all the way to the open water, to put a hydrophone in there?” I asked. “Perfectly safe, let’s do it,” replied Richard. When Richard Weber, one of the most renowned North Pole explorers to date, tells you that the sea ice, despite its dubious looks, is still OK to walk on, you believe him. And so the decision was made: we would venture into the Northwest Passage, to the ice edge where the open water begins, to listen for the whales. Along with some Arctic Watch clients interested in observing the process, we drove several ATVs along the coastline of Cunningham Inlet for seven kilometres until we reached the Northwest Passage. The sea-ice landscape had changed drastically in only a few days since the marathon. We stood on the shore looking at the large cracks and leads that fractured the thinning ice, and the wide open-water holes evident everywhere. We surveyed the ice carefully for polar bears before venturing on it, and then, led by Richard, we slowly made our way to an ice lead just a few meters away from the open ocean. I set up my gear, and, once the hydrophone was in the water, I asked everyone to jump on the ice . . . Yes! The hydrophone was working perfectly, I could hear the reverberation of the ice and see the spikes on the power spectrum clearly on my field laptop screen.

Beluga ecolocation in the Arctic

Listening for beluga whales in the Arctic. Photo credit: Gretchen Freund

Excited, I listened . . . to the sound of a whale-less ocean. Nothing. Not a chirp. The belugas could be near and just temporarily quiet, of course. I suspect that if there was any way for the belugas to be here, they would, as they have been observed pushing their way as far into new ice leads as they can manage to reach their nursery grounds.  Patience! There are two consistent lessons that I have learned in all my years of studying various creatures in their natural environments: The first is that in the field, nothing turns out quite as planned. Ever. And the second is patience, infinite patience! The Arctic summer is coming, and with it, sooner or later, the whales.

Beluga research in the Arctic. Vancouver Aquarium

Showing Arctic Watch vlients how to listen for whales. Photo Credit: Gretchen Freund

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3 Responses

  1. Kathy Wrightson

    I am going to share your story at the AquaNews desk at the aquarium if that is all right with you, Valeria? George and I are off for net 3 weeks to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. Thank you so much for your efforts and experiences as we learn more about Belugas through you! Be safe!

  2. Leesa Watt

    What a thrilling story! Can’t wait to read the next episode. Cheers to happy Beluga listening!

  3. Tina Mills

    Grateful for your efforts along with the knowledge you have gained and passed on to others. 🙂


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