It is another stormy and cold Arctic night. The canvas walls of my yurt shake violently with the wind. I am learning to trust that the whole structure will not come apart on top of me. But it is strong, it holds, at least against the wind. Water, however, has been another battle. It has been an unusually rainy season, and the floor of the yurt becomes a little lake with every big storm. Concerned, Arctic Watch owner Josee Auclair offered me a place to sleep at the lodge for the night, but I declined. I love my isolated research cliff overlooking the beluga nursery. I will take the puddles any time. As I lay here in my sleeping bag, warming my wet feet with a hot water bottle, I think about all the reasons why these small “discomforts” are a small price to pay to get to do what I do: delving into the underwater acoustic world of beluga whales in their pristine nursery grounds, to try to understand more about biologically important sounds such as those that maintain contact between mothers and their calves.
Listening in on the Cunningham Inlet underwater world is like hearing birds in the jungle after trying to hear them in a busy city street. In other areas, you put your hydrophone in the water and more often than not you hear silence, boats, or whale sounds masked by boats. Getting clean recordings is tricky: you have to find the whales first, stay with them (or hope they will stay with you), shut off the engine of your boat so that your own noise does not interfere, and hope that no other boats come near during your recording. But here, as soon as you put the hydrophone in the water you get transported into an underwater world so rich in beluga sounds it is sometimes deafening. When one leaves the observation tower (a fantastic little structure that can only be accessed at low tide, or with waders) after listening to the whales through the speakers for hours on end, the world seems noticeably silent.
This place is a behavioural ecologist’s dream, as it is conducive not only to listen, but also to observe. “Kindergarten” groups of calves play together under the care of just a few adults or sub-adults, calves ride their mothers’ backs, polar bears swim across the inlet, escorted by angry belugas (in the water, polar bears are no threat to belugas), whales roll in the mud with wild abandon — which helps with skin molting, one of the reasons they come to this estuary every summer. Occasionally they get stranded on gravel bars until the next high tide. Risking becoming stranded is risking a lot; polar bears have fed on stranded calves in this delta. So strandings are rare, and they tend to occur when there have been sudden heavy rains and the river flow is unusually high. Then, the whales are more likely to misjudge the height of the tides, come further up the river to rub on the gravel banks, and get left there by the rapidly ebbing tide.
Last night I saw one such stranding. I’d spotted whales rolling in the mud quite high up the river, and I was recording their sounds. I was struck by the energetic rolling, splashing and rubbing, and by the constant echolocation. Two adults, a younger, grayer one, and a larger and likely older one, suddenly became quite still. My companion, who has been photographing the whales in this inlet for 10 seasons, pulled over in her ATV, took one look at the whales and declared “I think they’re stranded!” I took a closer look . . . could it be? Yes, though they were submerged, they were a little too “stationary.” There was a juvenile (likely a two-year-old) with them and, as we discovered when we walked to a different vantage point, a very young dark calf.
We decided to stay with the whales until the tide was high enough to see them safely out of their predicament. It was going to be a long, cold, and fascinating night. We made sure to stay back from the water’s edge quite a ways, so as to not add further stress to the whales. I sneaked near them briefly to reposition my hydrophone in deeper water, quickly backing out.
The little calf was the most vocal of the four, making distress calls throughout the night. Whenever it became agitated, flapping around, the older female wrapped her tail around it, a clear soothing gesture that worked well to calm down the little one. Biologists are frequently told not to anthropomorphize behaviours when we describe them. But this could be nothing else but intentional comforting on the part of the adult. It happened over and over again: the “tail hug” was always triggered by the panicking calf. It was beautiful to watch. Equally touching was the behaviour of the younger female, who pushed her companion repeatedly, with her melon, in an apparent attempt to help it towards the deeper water.
It was close to 11 p.m. when the tide turned, and well past midnight when the juvenile and the calf got out. They were stuck one moment and swimming off the next. They did not go far, and stayed at the edge of the gravel bank, just a few meters away from their parents, along with two other adult whales that had been staying nearby all along, as if waiting for the stranded group. A few minutes later, with one final struggle, both adults left the gravel bank and joined their calves in deeper water (to a roaring cheer from all of us onlookers). Interestingly, it was the younger of the whales that swam off with the little calf, not the older one that had comforted it throughout the stranding ordeal. This incident reminded me of what a truly social species belugas are. They depend on one another, assist each other, and help take care of each other’s young (a trait called “alloparental care,” well known for belugas).
The wind has subsided now and I can hear the belugas down in the inlet again. I finish writing this last sentence, anticipating that cherished moment when I drift to sleep in my yurt listening to whales.
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 past weeks here.