A Tour of IFAW’s Camp Beluga
Post by Jake Levenson, IFAW Global Whale Program Officer, Headquarters Office
Our Solvetsky Field Station is not your typical research station or oceanographic vessel. There's no wet lab for dissecting things, nor a dry lab for microscopy or DNA analysis. There's no computer lab to conduct complex statistical or spatial analysis and no high tech oceanographic tools like a CTD or video plankton recorders.
In fact, there's no power whatsoever. Instead, I've brought with me a roll out solar panel to charge my laptop and the BGAN satellite transmitter so I can send you these blog updates. The station and it's staff must be completely self sustaining as there is no support of any kind for hundreds of miles. Even as I type this blog, above me Sasha and Nathalia are heating up some tar-like substance to fix the leaky roof (see below).
The main lab building (ok the only building) is about 10 by 15 feet in area, and houses the electronics workshop, a small kitchen, a wood stove, food storage, and a wooden planked table for meetings, typing up notes from the observation tower and meals.
Despite the lack of refrigeration, mealtime is always (surprisingly) delicious. Almost every meal is some sort of soup or stew type dish consisting of boiled carrots, onions, and maybe some type of pasta. I've learned that many Russians outside the big city will make a meal from local mushroom and berries that grow naturally. Luckily these guys know their plant life and no one has gotten sick (yet). Here's a picture of Vera, the Beluga team leader cutting up some wild mushrooms to be dried.
Fresh water, supplied from a local stream, is carried about 1/2 mile to camp in buckets (the picture above shows Nathalia collecting water). The water is brown from the sediment it percolates through and stays brown even after it's run through a water filter. In fact the first few days I was here I thought the stuff in the pitcher was tea, until someone asked me why I was adding sugar to my water. A few hundred yards from the main camp area is the toilet. I'll spare you the details, except to say that it's about as rustic as you can imagine. There's also a shower not far away. It's basically a wooden box about the size of a phone booth, with a big bucket on the top. You fill the big bucket on the roof with some of that brown stream water and then get inside and pull a lever that lets the water gravity feed through a shower head. Occasionally someone will get some water cooking on a fire up at camp and bring it down to the shower for hot water. The trick is for every person returning from the shower to return to camp with a new bucket of fresh water to heat up for the next person.
I've quickly learned these guys can fix just about anything. With no real support for hundreds of miles, this is a necessary skill. When the rechargeable battery died on a remote camera I brought to attach to a kite in hopes of quietly obtaining aerial images of Beluga mothers and calves, Valusia and Antonio quickly found a way to recharge the battery, despite the fact that the plug is for US electricity and not the 220 voltage in Russia. The quick thinking of Antone, Antonio, and Valusia enable
d me to test the camera yesterday afternoon and hopefully capture some images of moms and calves from high above them at low tide today.
At 65 degrees north, just a handful of miles south of the arctic circle, the sun never really sets this time of year. It's sort of a twilight-like light outside no matter what the hour. For someone like me, who is used to night being dark, it certainly takes some time to adjust. But, it seems that this team works around the clock, no matter the hour. If the weather is clear and the observation tower accessible, the team is at work, ensuring mom and baby beluga's are safe and sound.