Camp Beluga: No Power, No Running Water, but Many Whales!
Post by Jake Levenson, IFAW Global Program Officer for Whales, Headquarters Office
It's my third day at IFAW's Camp Beluga in the Russian Arctic, and despite the lack of power, running water, and other niceties many of us are accustomed, I'm amazed at the amount of work that's done here.
The staff here are protecting whales in one of the harshest environments on earth. The team is led by Vera, a Russian whale scientist who has been studying and working to protect beluga's for almost 10 years. She comes to Solvetsky earch year from June 1 through August, and spends countless hours monitoring the beluga's from the observation tower she and her team built. The tower is basically a 75' rusty contraption that looks a lot like the scaffolding used to construct a tall building. A rusty metal frame, with rusty metal ladders and wooden planks create various floors for observation. From the top you get a terrific view of the bay and can easily sight belugas.
There are a lot of special areas of the ocean I've had the benefit of visiting in my life, from diving on lush coral reefs, swimming among schools of large sharks, to watching dozens of Humpback whales surface with mouths agape choke-full of tiny sandlance, but this one may very well be the most unique ever and it occupies an area only 25' in diameter! It's here in these waters that Beluga whales come from all over the white sea for this small speck of sand in the vast ocean.
Why here? Nobody knows, but we're working to not only find out, but to protect this invaluable area as well. These waters seem to be an important area for white sea beluga's to give birth, to raise baby beluga's, and just to relax and get a nice back scratch. That's right, I said back scratch. Just as your dog might like to get a scratch behind its ears, so do whales. In this small sandy area, belugas roll and rub their backs in the sand, shedding old dead skin for the bright white body that gives them their name. (Behli in Russian means white)
After belugas give birth, they continue to hang out at Solvetsky Island to seemingly mingle with other new Beluga mothers and calves. Like a group of human parents gathering in the park with their stroller-bound babies, beluga mothers socialize and give their new offspring opportunity to play. The new calves splash, tail slap, and otherwise play around in the water while never straying too far from their watchful mother. Here are a few pictures of a playful baby beluga we spotted yesterday:
Later in the season, just a few weeks from now, male belugas will start to gather near this tiny speck of sand, join the female belugas ready for mating and begin an intricate dance that leads to mating. Unfortunately, increased commercial boat traffic is disturbing this behavior critical to a species survival. It's through this playtime that the calves learn the important skills needed in life to be an adult beluga but increasing boat traffic in the region is driving them away from the normally peaceful cove these whales have been seeking out for ages. Just yesterday, while I was out at the observation tower, a high-speed hovercraft flew by just yards away from the playing belugas.
Our team meets with commercial boat operators to warn them about the threat they pose to beluga whales, and continues to learn more about them so that we can prevent this species extinction as effectively as possible. With your help we're going to make sure these whales are protected. We're working to make Solvetsky a sanctuary for whales so they can thrive and be undisturbed for generations to come.
The threat of extinction has never been greater and as the planet warms, seas become more acidic, and coastal habitats like this one are destroyed. The fight has never been tougher. Your help has never been more important.