Belugas are arctic whales – why are they in the St. Lawrence River?
Belugas have evolved as an arctic species; their white colour, lack of a dorsal fin (which allows them to swim under ice) and thick blubber make them ideally suited to life in frigid waters. The belugas in the St. Lawrence got there at the end of the last Ice Age. When the glacial ice retreated north, an estimated 10,000 of the white whales stayed in what is now the St. Lawrence River, Canada’s busiest waterway. The St. Lawrence belugas are the southernmost belugas in the world.
How many of them are there and why is the population endangered?
Today, there are an estimated 900 beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River’s estuary. As recently as the 1800s, there were perhaps 10,000 who lived here. They are listed as endangered by Committee on the Status Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). (The federal Species at Risk Act, SARA, lists them as threatened, and they are under consideration for listing as endangered by that criteria as well.) There are many reasons for their drastic decline, and it’s difficult to pinpoint specific culprits. Among the possible causes: hunting (which ended in the late 1970s), pollution, noise, habitat loss, diminishing prey species, shifting ice, and ship strikes. In recent years, scientists have seen problems with beluga childbirth. For example, in 2012, there was an unprecedented die-off of beluga calves which led researchers on a desperate search for answers.
Do people still hunt belugas in Canada?
Yes. Commercial hunting of the St. Lawrence belugas ended in the 1950s, and sport hunting ended in the 1970s, so they are no longer hunted in the the St. Lawrence. However, beluga whales remain an important part of the Inuit diet; therefore they are still hunted in the Canadian Arctic.
Are these the same beluga whales that you can see in Churchill, Manitoba?
All belugas belong to the same species: Delphinapterus leucas. However, there are about 30 sub-species identified around the world. So, for example, the St. Lawrence group is genetically distinct from the Western Hudson Bay group. The famed Churchill belugas (Western Hudson Bay group) are not considered endangered. There are an estimated 24,000 to 48,000 belugas in the Western Hudson Bay group. Worldwide, there are between 150,000 and 200,000 beluga whales, and about two-thirds of those are in Canadian waters.
Why are beluga calls so important?
Belugas are called “canaries of the sea” because they are so vocal. They use a variety of calls, clicks and whistles to communicate with each other. They use echolocation to hunt for their prey. This means they make sounds that get reflected back to them, and their brains can calculate where the prey is based on those reflected sounds. They rely completely on sound to survive. In our film, we explore the groundbreaking work of Dr. Valeria Vergara, from the Vancouver Aquarium, who first identified the critical “contact call” that beluga calves and their mothers use to communicate. It is not yet known exactly how shipping noise and other human-generated noise affects those calls – and belugas’ lives – especially in the busy St. Lawrence, but future work may help humans answer that critical question. Dr. Véronique Lesage, from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, likens beluga communication when boats pass to human communication in a noisy bar: first, as noise increases, they repeat themselves, then they simplify the message, then they use a higher frequency — like when we scream. Finally, as the noise grows, they eventually they stop calling and apparently decide to communicate later.
How long do belugas live? And are the babies grey?
Longevity in wild belugas varies and depends on the population. In the St. Lawrence, the latest estimates indicate that belugas can live to be 70 or 80 years old. The babies are born dark grey, and soon turn a bluish colour. The name for a yearling calf is “bleuvet.” After that they are light gray, and by about 10 to 12 years of age, they turn their characteristic white colour.
What other kind of whales are there in the St. Lawrence?
Most Canadians don’t realize that the St. Lawrence estuary provides incredible habit for a variety of whales in the summer. Including the belugas, thirteen whale species visit here. This includes the blue whale, the largest animal in the world. The St. Lawrence estuary is the only place on the planet where you can see a beluga and a blue whale in the same place at the same time. Other cetacean species that visit here are fin whales, humpbacks, minkes, North Atlanic right whales, sperm whales, pilot whales, and killer whales, as well as some smaller species of dolphins and porpoises.
There is a lot of drone photography in the film. What was that like?
Drone photography generates much more anxiety than you would think from all the happy buzz. You have thousands of dollars of drone and camera gear flying over water with technology that’s not at all foolproof. It’s also much more exciting than you would think, but not because of the cool hardware. It’s because of what you get to see. You see in a way people have never seen before. And with whales it’s like suddenly snooping in an entirely new world. And what does it require of the pilot? Practice, practice, practice.
It was interesting to see the solitary beluga in Nova Scotia. What’s with these loners? Is it safe to swim with them?
On average, about once or twice a year, a solitary beluga will show up in Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. In our film, we describe and show a young male who people called Leucas. He spent part of the summer alone in the harbour in Liverpool, NS. Leucas was identified through a biopsy and genetic ID as belonging to the St. Lawrence population. Often these lone belugas end up seeking human interaction, because they are a social species and in the absence of other belugas they look for human contact. People often respond by interacting with these “solitary sociable” lonely whales, but history has shown that chaotic human interaction can often lead to injury or death for these solitary sociables. It is not considered safe to swim with them, because it can be dangerous both for the animals and for the humans. As with many situations with cetaceans, it is often best simply to watch from the shore. Nobody knows why these solitary animals get separated from their families, or why they end up so far out of their known range.
Should people try to get close to belugas? Did you go in the water to get those underwater shots?
Belugas are beautiful, charismatic, gentle, curious creatures, and it’s natural for people to want to get close to them, either in the water or by boat. However, it is best for people to leave belugas alone to live their lives in the wild. Stress is a known cause of childbirth complications in land mammals such as cows, so it’s reasonable to assume that stress, even as gentle as visiting kayaks, could also affect beluga childbirth. The Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park has developed guidelines for whale watching, and has stringent rules in areas that are considered critical habitat. We’d be the first to say that we have been tempted to get in the water with these beautiful whales, but we believe it’s vital to follow the advice of experts. We never got in the water with the belugas; all filming was done from land, by air, or on board research vessels where we were filming the work of scientists. Underwater filming was done using a pole cam. All filming was done under a Special Permit issued by the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park.
What kind of research is being done to help the St. Lawrence belugas?
There is an incredible group of people working to understand this population of whales. In Call of the Baby Beluga, we portray many of the leading scientists and researchers. Robert Michaud and his group, GREMM, have been working for 30 years to photo-identify the belugas. Most recently, Robert embarked on an ambitious project to tag belugas with satellite transmitters, to see where they go in the winter. Véronique Lesage and her colleagues at Fisheries and Oceans Canada are studying pregnancy rates in belugas, beluga diet, as well as exploring the belugas’ winter range by aerial observation. Nadia Ménard and her colleagues at the Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park are undertaking a variety of prey and noise studies. Valeria Vergara is planning to study the impact of noise on belugas in 2016. Tim Frasier of St. Mary’s University analyzes the DNA of the whales to reveal connections between different individuals in the population. Stéphane Lair of the University of Montreal studies the causes of beluga death by examining the bodies of those that have died.