How to carefully count a beluga herd, including every baby beluga

Our beluga research team in Russia utilises off the shelf aircraft models and specialised ‘lifter kites’ to minimise disturbance to the survey populations. Photo © Roman Belikov/IFAWThe International Fund for Animal Welfare successfully supports and funds a research project studying beluga whales and their breeding aggregation in the White Sea off the coast of the Bolshoi Solovetsky Island.

Observing behaviour of cetaceans in their natural habitat and conducting a population census of these whales are, indeed, unconventional tasks.

Beluga whales spend a considerable amount of time away from observers' eyes and often their white backs appear only briefly above the surface of the water. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to maintain continuous ethological observations of beluga whales from the coast. It is also difficult to conduct a census of these animals in areas of water which are far from our researchers, who sometimes are not even able to give a reliable assessment of the number of animals within an area of water, let alone a specific number of young beluga whales.

In recent years, much hope has been placed on remote controlled aircraft as there have been considerable technological advancements in this sphere. However, professional remote controlled aircraft are expensive and complex.

At the same time a lot of developments are taking place in aero-modelling. Plane and helicopter models are much cheaper and less complex than professional remote controlled aircraft, while their technical specifications are advanced enough that it is possible to use them to perform simple tasks.

Also, very recently professional kites – ‘lifter-kites’ - became available in Russia: they are used worldwide for kite aerial photography (KAP) – photographic surveys from a bird’s eye perspective.

That is why we decided to test these options in performing our traditional field research tasks related to beluga whale census and behaviour observation.

Using such aircraft makes it possible to obtain objective census results (that is, instrumentally obtained objectively documented data – or the counting of beluga whales found in photographs), as well as:

  1. Widening the area of accurate census (visual assessment of beluga whale numbers in remote areas are often not very accurate); and
  2. Checking the accuracy of numbers provided by coastal observers (the assumption was that near the observation station the census results as a rule are accurate, while results for more remote areas can be quite inaccurate).

Aerial surveys, especially when the whales are in shallow water, and particularly when the water clarity is high, considerably improves the ‘visibility’ of these animals, compared to coastal observation or observation from boats, where the animal can remain invisible (unless they are on the surface or jump out). Many of these remote controlled aircraft have a considerable range, allowing them to also move outside of the area accessible to the observers, which makes them particularly useful. This is one more reason why we decided to use these aircraft models.

First attempts to use such models were made in 2010. Since then the system has continued to be improved. In 2014 we had at our disposal a small fleet of aircraft models and a kite, which were all used to implement aerial video observations and to perform local aerial surveys of beluga whales within the water area of the Solovetsky aggregation.

Between July 2014 and August 2014 we used three types of aircraft: remote controlled planes, multiple-rotor helicopters (multicopters) and a professional kite (lifter).

Main survey activities were performed using specialised FPV (first person view) plane models, remotely controlled on the basis of the image feed from the video camera mounted on the aircraft.

The plane models were used for long-range flights, encompassing practically the entire water area of the Solovetsky breeding aggregation.

The resulting FPV monitoring (local aerial surveys of beluga whales) was performed over the course of one month. The regular aerial surveys generated objective data about distribution, numbers and age of the animals.

Photographs taken using the plane models considerably increased accuracy of the beluga whale census within remote areas of the water area and corroborated the accuracy of the visual assessment of beluga whale numbers in the vicinity of the observation station.

In addition to surveys controlled remotely, aircraft were used for aerial observation of beluga whale behaviour. ‘Air Lift’ was used for those purposes – a specialised kite and multicopter.

Such devices are capable of hovering in the same location, which makes them more suitable for aerial surveys.

The most interesting results were generated through photo and video surveys using kite (KAP – kite aerial photography). It is important to note that a ‘lifter kite’ was used for research on marine mammals in Russia for the first time. It appeared to be quite effective.

It is very important that such a device is noiseless and does not disturb the animals in any way.

These research activities made it possible to observe and record beluga whales’ reaction to humans in boats and ships and to develop recommendations for the necessary protection of this unique place under the ever growing pressure of tourism.

The Solovetsky Islands are a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site and are increasingly visited by tourists who come to see the 15th century monastery. Many of these tourists are eager and willing to see belugas.

The whales suffered the greatest anthropogenic disturbance from these tourists boats – the animals stopped their usual activities, tried to move farther from the boats and sometimes even left for the deep sea.

While observing the animals from the shore it is necessary to stay calm - don’t speak loudly, don’t throw anything into the water, don’t try to feed the whales (tourists often try to attract the whales by throwing them pieces of bread), don’t step into the water, as the whales hear even the faintest sounds traveling through the water.

Our team has observed that beluga whales can clearly see above the water line and are disturbed when large groups of tourists come near the water’s edge, so those wishing to observe should approach in smaller groups.


For more information about IFAW efforts to protect whales around the world, visit our campaign page.

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Brian Sharp, Emergency Relief Officer, Stranding Coordinator
Manager, Marine Mammal Rescue and Research
Dr. Maria (Masha) N. Vorontsova, Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation
Senior Advisor to the IFAW Marine Conservation Program
Matt Collis, Director, International Policy
Director, International Policy
Patrick Ramage, Program Director, Whales
Program Director, Marine Conservation