It is half an hour past midnight, the sun low but bright on the horizon; the blows and surface squeaks and whistles of the whales can be heard loud and clear from the research cliff. I arrived today to a sunny and summery Arctic, a kind warm(ish) temperature (which up here still means a down jacket!), a few daring mosquitos (infrequent at this latitude), and only a few ice patches remaining at the mouth of the inlet. Dozens of belugas, I am told, arrived yesterday, on July 10. At this time last year the area was frozen, and ice and snow dominated the landscape. The belugas made an unusually late appearance two weeks later. So my excitement had no bounds as the charter plane flew over the blue waters of an inlet dotted by the unmistakable white whales that had already made themselves at home in their nursery area. I wanted to dive from the plane, hydrophone in hand, my jacket as a parachute, and get started right then and there (thankfully, common sense prevailed).
My hosts are the Webers — a family of seasoned North Pole and Arctic explorers: Richard Weber, Josee Auclair and their sons Tessum and Nansen. They outdid themselves with my research tent this year; a spacious and dry weatherhaven replaces last season’s leaky yurt. Two oval-shaped windows allow me a view of the bay. I have shelves for my gear, a large table, and a Coleman stove. I spent the day getting organized and I am now settled, ready to start my research and turn another page of this fascinating story about loquacious whales in a melting and increasingly noisy Arctic.
A day has passed since my last entry. The morning was productive, I obtained my first recordings of the season, but the whales were for the most part quite far, congregating in an inaccessible area of the large delta. By early afternoon they had all cleared the inlet and not a single whale remained. I am sure that the next group will soon arrive, as the whales come into the inlet throughout July and only start vacating the area in August, to start their long migration back to their wintering areas of open pack ice north of Baffin Bay, and along the West coast of Greenland.
I took advantage of the beluga-less bay to take measurements of the underwater ambient noise in this pristine habitat. I am now, once again, sitting by my tent well past midnight, observing with the spotting scope a mother polar bear and her two cubs meandering on the ice edge just across the water. They are far enough for peace of mind, but close enough to watch them go about their bear-life. Another adult crossed paths with them at one point, with no visible aggression nor greeting, just an unceremonious “to each their own,” as they continued on their separate ways. I have been glued to the spotting scope for two hours, unable to bring myself to call it a night and go to sleep. And really, how does one sleep with a bright sun defying the mind’s insistence that it is night-time, and four polar bears roaming around?
The whales did come back steadily throughout the next day, until, by mid-afternoon, there were more than 100 belugas socializing in the shallows of the delta, right where the fresh water from the Cunningham River meets the salt water of the inlet. I recorded hours of extraordinary data, both at the research cliff and on the delta at low tide. I could recognize some calls from last season, and could pick out the tell-tale door-creak-like contact calls of the calves. I stood transfixed, immersed in an overwhelming cacophony of sounds (the hydrophone was connected to a loudspeaker), taking copious behavioural notes as the adults, calves and juveniles came closer and closer to where I was standing. This area allows uncommonly intimate contact with the whales, a tremendously rare opportunity to observe and understand this species. I reflected on what a tactile species belugas are.
Calves ride their mother’s backs, and groups of juveniles roam in very tight groups, forming “beluga chains,” each animal resting their head and upper body on the preceding animal. Large males band together and form “rafts,” always keeping one part of their body in contact with each other as they rest (which, like all cetaceans, they do with one brain hemisphere at a time so that breathing can remain under voluntary control). Female-calf pairs can be seen flanked by three or four grey juveniles, all swimming as if one unit. And the acoustic communication that mediates their complex social interactions simply never ceases; the chatter is constant in large groups.
The research came along beautifully throughout the week. I recorded yearlings and calves gathered under the research cabin, an important opportunity to understand more about the lower frequency sounds that young animals make — those potentially more easily masked by boat noise. Any research project benefits immensely from cooperative efforts. My photographer friend that shares this research cliff with me has been assisting by skilfully synchronizing her video with many of my recording sessions, which facilitates correlating behaviour with sounds.
I have been here for a week now and the inlet is full of life, with more than 500 belugas occupying several of the channels of the large delta. Last evening a group of whales became entrapped at low tide in the same section of the river as a group temporarily stranded in last year. The whales remained there until the tide was high enough for them to cross over to the inlet over a shallow gravel-bank. There were no neonates and no yearlings in the group, which may explain the near complete absence of contact calls, in contrast to last season’s entrapment, which included young calves and nearly continuous contact calling. These temporary channel entrapments are a perfect, naturally occurring opportunity to target smaller groups of individuals: in those circumstances, I know exactly who is within recording range. These entrapments are not uncommon: today, again, two juveniles and four adults became entrapped for a few hours. And halfway through that recording event, an adult, pregnant-looking (or very fat) whale stranded in the shallows. She was still stranded when we had to get out of our observation spot to avoid being flooded by the rising tide, but she was gone when we checked with the spotting scope from the research cliff an hour or so later. Never a dull moment in the Arctic!
For the second year in a row, Vancouver Aquarium associate researcher Dr. Valeria Vergara is spending the summer in the Arctic. Based at Arctic Watch on Somerset Island, Dr. Vergara is carrying out acoustic research on the Cunningham Inlet belugas to learn more about wild Arctic populations, and to find out how their melting environment is affecting them. Her work is supported by the Vancouver Aquarium, The W. Garfield Weston Foundation, a Sea World Busch Gardens Grant, and Quark Expeditions. Blog posts from 2014 can be found here.