Seeing Solovetsky belugas for the first time


Solovetsky Archipelago is a special place for Beluga whales. Every summer, they gather in a small area off the coast. It is very difficult to watch these whales without making some noise as they suddenly appear above the surface of the water – even if you are an experienced whale scientist.

Vera, the senior researcher and head of the expedition, shrieks with delight to recognize an adult male she has known for ten years from a prominent notch in the small ridge that all belugas have for a dorsal fin – matched to a distinctive scar on the flank.

Exactly why they come here and what they do while they are here has been a subject of study by an IFAW team from the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences for some twenty years.

We have learned much about their behavior there. It seems belugas come from far and wide to socialize at each low tide. Many bring their newborn calves, still showing the ‘birth wrinkles’ from where they were folded in the uterus before birth.

Certainly some of the socialization is of a sexual nature; some just seems to be for the sake of meeting and being together.

Vera tells us that they have learned that some belugas stay all summer here, others come and go. All day, different groups of belugas come, meet, and depart. This is where belugas frequent shallow water, rub against stones on the bottom, and otherwise just generally hang out together.

READ: Annual study on beluga whales continues

Beluga whales are born grey and darken over the first few weeks of life, and then gradually lighten until they are pure white as mature adults at around seven years old. Adults are some 5m long and can weigh more than 1,500 kg.

They are a toothed whale, eat fish, and have a very mobile neck joint, which enables them to move their head much more than whales usually can, which enables them to look back at us whale watchers when they ‘spyhop’ with their heads above the water.

They are also very vocal, making a wide range of clicks and whistles under the water, earning them the nickname of ‘canaries of the sea.’

The Solovetsky Islands are in the circumpolar region, and in the short arctic summer enjoy twenty-four hours of daylight. As well as the small team of researchers, tourists come in increasing numbers to enjoy the sight of so many white whales so close to shore. On shore, tourists do not disturb the whales, but an increasing number come in small boats. Trapped in shallow water between the shore and the boats, the whales rapidly depart.

At present Solovetsky is a UNESCO cultural heritage site, but failed to be designated as a mixed cultural and natural heritage site. There is little formal protection for the island’s unique but frail ecosystems, or for the belugas and their gathering place.

IFAW is working to establish formal protection for the islands, and also working with local tourist operators and whale watch operators to establish voluntary codes which will prevent environmental damage by increased numbers of visitors.

Solovetsky is a unique island, for its human and natural heritage. Let’s hope we have the wisdom to protect the island for the future; for people and for the Beluga whales.


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