One day in Quebec, a baby beluga whale washes up on a gravel beach along the St. Lawrence River. Unexpectedly, she is vigorously alive. A scientific team decides to take unusual steps to try to save her.
The story of this baby whale leads us on a larger journey through the amazing world of the St. Lawrence beluga whales and of the scientists who have worked for decades against long odds to help them. Like the story of the baby, it is a tough trip in a beautiful place, a true tale of drama, uncertainty, camaraderie, hard work, achievement, perseverance, and love, brightened by a glimpse of hope.
CALL OF THE BABY BELUGA begins with the eventful history of the 900 remaining belugas that now live in the estuary of the St. Lawrence River in central Quebec. This story starts with the surprising basic fact that these members of a species adapted to arctic survival make their home in a decidedly temperate climate. The film explains how these whales arrived in waters that would become the St. Lawrence at the end of the Ice Age, then stayed because of favourable conditions when most other belugas moved far to the north as the ice receded.
The story becomes grim as European whalers then settlers killed thousands of belugas for leather and oil. Then, in the 1920s, the government put a bounty on belugas because fishermen mistakenly believed the whales were destroying fisheries. Commercial hunting continued until 1959, and sport hunting lasted another two decades. Then, out of the decimation of the killing, the whales were suddenly embraced by humans when we learned of their intelligence and social lives.
The film describes this development, led on the St. Lawrence by two young women who studied belugas’ social lives from a rocky point and a tiny boat in the 1970s, and a toxicologist who stumbled on a whale carcass, which changed his life and the lives of the whales. The story shows how discoveries from research illuminated an unexpectedly close relationship between these whales and the explosion of industrial development that made the St. Lawrence watershed the heart of world industrial development for a century.
“Each beluga is somehow telling us that recent history of North America,” says Robert Michaud, one of the film’s main characters. He is referring to the cocktail of toxic chemicals the whales gathered in their flesh from polluted prey in the river.
The film shows how Robert’s work to understand the intricate social lives of these belugas has made them the most studied – and storied – of all beluga groups, and has led to remarkable insights shown in the film by innovative drone footage. These include the determined loyalty belugas have to specific small places in the wider waters, to which they return again and again, apparently to socialize; alloparenting, in which mothers share parenting duties, sometimes for unrelated calves; and tight companionship among the males, which has led Robert to refer to male groups as “bikers.”
Through the lives of three main characters – Robert Michaud, who has studied these whales for over 30 years; Veronique Lesage, a leading beluga scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada; and Valeria Vergara, who discovered calls babies and mothers use to communicate, the film now shows how humans have become fully engaged in studying – and trying to help – these 900 survivors.
The help is desperately needed. Although the days of intentionally killing St. Lawrence belugas is past, toxins and other unknown causes make the future of these survivors uncertain. The film shows how a catastrophic die-off of babies in 2012 led to bad news about the state of the overall population.
The film describes how a veterinarian is seeing new patterns of deaths among beluga mothers, and how possible causes might include such diverse things as prey decline, ship noise, chemical contaminants, or even a reduction of winter ice that these ice-loving animals may need for survival. The film also shows how little we still know about these whales, including the question of why one or two solitary belugas a year turn up far from home and often try to connect with humans.
As CALL OF THE BABY BELUGA shows how the scientific team plans to try to save the beached baby beluga, the film shows how the fate of one beluga – just like the fate of all these whales and our planet itself – depends on the fight to wrestle knowledge from the mysterious world. As the scientists venture out onto the water with the orphan calf, preparing to try something new that they have learned from their research, we will understand what this story means to the whole hum of life in this world, whose fate now rests entirely in our hands.