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 posts from week 1 and week 2.

When you get to watch belugas, narwhals and a bowhead whale in the same week, you can say it is a good week. It was the beginning of my third week in the study area; Cunningham Inlet continued to be iced up, delaying the yearly visit of hundreds of beluga whales to their traditional nursery area.

I was at the Arctic Watch Lodge when my host Tessum Weber’s jubilant voice came through loud and clear on the satellite speaker phone: “We are at Cape Anne, and at least a hundred belugas are hanging out here at the mouth of the river!” It was the best news we’d had since the beginning of the season. If whales could not come to us, at least we could go to them.

Looking for whales in the Arctic. Photo Credit: Gretchen Freund

Looking at travelling belugas along the ice edge in Barrow Strait. Photo Credit: Gretchen Freund

Cape Anne is a small peninsula by a river mouth, 30 kilometres west of the inlet, in Barrow Strait. It was immediately decided that four of us would drive there and spend the night with the whales.

Traversing 30 kilometres of Arctic tundra on a Gator is a slow and treacherous journey that requires negotiating ice patches, snow, rivers and creeks, steep hills of loose and slippery rocks, and soft mud. The trip should take 2.5 hours . . . unless you get stuck, as we did, in the infamous tundra “quick mud,” a quicksand-like mud that sucks anything in up to the permafrost layer.

Add another two hours of acrobatics in the mud to get our transportation unstuck, and it was nearly 2 a.m. and peak low tide by the time we arrived, tired and muddy, to Cape Anne. The whales were no longer as close to shore, where they would risk getting beached at low tide. But it was a memorable night regardless, as hour after hour we watched, entranced, as pods of belugas and narwhals travelled slowly (and mostly quietly) through the area.

I wondered, amazed, if it is common for belugas and narwhals to travel so close together like that, occasionally with only about 100 m between the two species. They are closely-related species in the same family, Monodontidae.

Cape Anne at Low Tide 2 am

Cape Anne at low tide, 2 am.

We returned to camp in the morning and I caught some sleep during the day (in the Arctic, the boundary between days and nights is blurry). I awoke in mid-afternoon to learn that there had been another trip to Cape Anne, with no belugas sighted. So their visit to that area had been just that: a brief visit.

That night, a helicopter pilot staying at the lodge told us he’d seen hundreds of belugas congregated on an ice lead near Limestone island, in Barrow Strait, 13 kilometres west of Cape Anne. Would they return to Cape Anne? Were the whales going back and forth along Barrow Strait looking for alternative nursery areas? Would they keep checking the ice situation in Cunningham Inlet, or would they give up and spend the remainder of their brief summer elsewhere?

Aerial View of Belugas at Limestone Island

Aerial view of belugas at Limestone Island.

I made the long journey to Cape Anne again the following day, and the next, hoping to find belugas. I got glimpses of small groups travelling west along the ice edge, but nothing like the large, playful herd sighted a few days back.

One evening, Nansen Weber and I stayed at Cape Anne longer than the rest of the guests that had come with us. We hoped that the travelling belugas would decide to stop by; he wanted to photograph them, and I wanted to record them.

We were waiting in silence, taking in the desolate beauty of the landscape, and then we saw it: a giant exhalation blow that towered a few meters above the surface. There is only one species in these waters that could make those blows, the largest of Arctic whales and second in size only to the blue whale: the bowhead whale!

The bowhead takes its name from the massive bow-shaped skull that is 30 to 40 per cent of their total body length, allowing the whale to break through thick ice with its head. They can live for more than 150 years, with one known male reaching 200 years of age. Imagine what some of these ancient individuals have seen and experienced throughout their lives — they were alive in the 1800s!

We watched this Arctic giant in awe until it disappeared from sight. I could not believe our luck. These are rare whales, with an estimated 6,000 animals in the Eastern Canada-West Greenland Population. Nansen had spent most summers of his life up here in the Arctic, and he had never seen a bowhead. “I have now seen all Arctic mammals,” he said to me, thrilled.

Watching Traveling Belugas and Narwhals at Cape Anne 3 am

Watching travelling belugas and narwhals at Cape Anne, 3 am.

Two nights after the bowhead encounter, I was in my yurt, getting ready to climb into my double sleeping bag, when I heard a gentle knock: I came out to find Madison Espie, Arctic Watch’s wonderful tundra guide and sommelier, and Danny Wilson, assistant cook extraordinaire, with big grins on their faces.

“We have a surprise for you,” said Madison. “Look over there, in the far corner of the inlet, by that big block of ice.” I looked . . . belugas! The belugas were here! Madison had spotted them from the lodge with the scope, and she and Danny hiked over to my yurt to give me the good news. I was elated.

There were dozens, and more coming. They had made their way along a large opening at the mouth of the bay, and had simply come under the remaining ice, to their traditional nursery grounds. The whales continued to arrive throughout the night. The next morning the bay was alive with belugas.

Belgua whale research in the Arctic.

Beluga whales have finally arrived.

* * *

It is midnight now. I am sitting in the little orange tent that I pitched this afternoon on an elevated rock mound near the water, to make it easier to watch belugas for long hours in inclement weather. The fog is so thick you can almost lean on it. I do not see the whales through the fog, but I hear their loud blows, their strange in-air sounds — horns and screams and screeches — and the orchestra of underwater sounds coming through my hydrophone speakers.

I feel as if I’m surrounded by whales, and like them, immersed in a world of sound. This moment will last, for me, only until this fog lifts and I can see again. But these whales live six months of the year in the total darkness of the Arctic night, so sound is everything, always. Hearing must be to them as vision is to us. I listen. I hear calves calling, I can recognize them easily now, after years of listening to and analyzing calf calls at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Belgua whale research tent in the Arctic.

Beluga observation tent out on the Arctic tundra.

This is what I have been waiting for, these moments of insight that come when one observes a species for hours on end, becoming attuned to them. In the next two weeks, with the belugas here day and night, their sounds constantly filling the air, I hope to learn more about them than ever before. I am flooded with curiosity. I like to think of the beginning of a research project as akin to carrying around a great novel that you have not yet read.  I cannot wait to begin turning the pages.

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3 Responses

  1. Hannah Musgrave

    I am 8, and I like Beluga whales. Thank you for sharing your experience with me. One day I want to do what you are doing.

  2. Jill Campbell

    To me this is why the Vancouver Aquarium exists….to study the habits, the sounds & all that goes with researching Belugas, Dolphins….everything you have at the Aquarium.
    Dr. Valerie is doing something amazing & powerful, she gets to be up close and personal with wild belugas in their habitat. Just to read about the sounds they make sends a shiver up my spine. What awesomeness & privilege to hear this.
    I look forward to reading her findings & seeing her photos!
    Great job!!


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