Bel­uga whales

In au­tumn 2018, a bel­uga whale nick­named Benny be­gan at­tract­ing crowds when it ap­peared in the River Thames. Too far south of its Arc­tic home, it has drawn at­ten­tion to the present-day re­al­ity for these an­i­mals.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Contents - By Doug Al­lan

Is the ar­rival of a bel­uga whale in the Thames a bad omen? We ex­plore the plight of these ghost-like cetaceans

B right white with a prom­i­nent, bul­bous fore­head and that clas­sic smile – the one they can’t help mak­ing. It’s no won­der that when a lone bel­uga was spot­ted in the River Thames in Septem­ber 2018, it quickly gained an af­fec­tion­ate nick­name in the press – ‘Benny the Bel­uga’ – and hun­dreds of peo­ple lined the banks at Gravesend, cam­eras in hand. Im­ages went all over the world and news re­ports hyped up the po­ten­tial of a res­cue mis­sion and the thrill of spot­ting such an un­usual vis­i­tor in the Thames.

Amid the me­dia cir­cus and end­less pho­to­graphs cir­cu­lat­ing on so­cial me­dia, how­ever, the real story was be­ing ig­nored. Why was ‘Benny’ in the Thames, over 3,000km south of his usual range? The fo­cus on a sin­gle in­di­vid­ual was ob­scur­ing the wider pic­ture. Hunted, cap­tured and vic­tims of cli­mate change, bel­u­gas are fac­ing a grow­ing num­ber of threats. Benny’s ar­rival comes as a timely re­minder of dra­matic changes in the Arc­tic.

Held in cap­tiv­ity

This ghost-like Arc­tic cetacean is so ap­peal­ing that, trag­i­cally, the species is cap­tured for the en­joy­ment of mankind – kept con­fined in aquaria where tourists can pay to view them. I first saw a cap­tive bel­uga at Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium, where Aurora, a fe­male, swam around her tank. At first glance the tank was ex­pan­sive and the far walls looked like they were made of rock – a nod in the di­rec­tion of be­ing nat­u­ral.

I watched Aurora for a long time. She would come around reg­u­larly in the same pat­tern of move­ment – along the sur­face, dive down, half turn as she passed me, then back into her cir­cuit. With that ‘smile’, it was im­pos­si­ble for the chil­dren and adults fur­ther along not to grin back at her. There’s no doubt she was a huge at­trac­tion.

But once you’ve seen bel­u­gas in the wild like I have, film­ing them for the BBC Nat­u­ral His­tory Unit and oth­ers, there is no way you could con­done them be­ing in cap­tiv­ity. No mat­ter how much stim­u­la­tion the staff and train­ers of­fered the bel­u­gas in their care; how much they cared for them (and be­lieve me, I know they did); no mat­ter how much sci­ence was learned from hav­ing them there, I could see it was like hold­ing a fam­ily in a one-roomed house with no win­dows, while out­side was all the rich­ness and full­ness of nat­u­ral life.

I couldn't help my­self, next time Aurora came around I held up my hand, in­dex fin­ger out­stretched, reach­ing out like ET did to touch El­liott. I know it was al­most cer­tainly my imag­i­na­tion, but I like to think she swam just frac­tion­ally slower past me on that one oc­ca­sion.

Aurora lived an­other 15 years. Her death in 2016 was to be the cat­a­lyst that led to Van­cou­ver Aquar­ium’s de­ci­sion ear­lier this year – bow­ing to pub­lic pres­sure that had been ris­ing steadily – when they an­nounced they would stop keep­ing whales and dol­phins in the aquar­ium. Sadly, this isn’t the case else­where. A sin­gle spec­i­men can be worth over $250,000. In Rus­sia, cap­tur­ing and sell­ing whales is big busi­ness.

Re­ports have re­vealed that one fa­cil­ity near the far eastern Rus­sian city of Nakhodka has at least 11 wild­caught or­cas and 90 wild-caught bel­u­gas. “Typ­i­cally, each year, Rus­sia is­sues quo­tas to al­low for more than 150 bel­u­gas to be taken from the wild and used for ed­u­ca­tional, cul­tural or re­search pur­poses,” says Rob Lott, pol­icy man­ager of Whale and Dol­phin Con­ser­va­tion’s ‘End Cap­tiv­ity’ cam­paign. “The re­al­ity is that these

Once you've seen wild bel­u­gas, there is no way you could con­done them be­ing in cap­tiv­ity.

whales are traded com­mer­cially, mainly to Chi­nese ma­rine parks.”

The Nakhodka fa­cil­ity has been likened to a ‘whale prison’ in the me­dia. “The im­ages are shock­ing,” says Rob. “We be­lieve this is the largest group­ing of wild-caught cetaceans at a hold­ing fa­cil­ity the world has ever seen.”

Tear­ing fam­i­lies apart

Crammed to­gether in tiny en­clo­sures for months at a time, the cap­tive bel­u­gas have a low life ex­pectancy. “Bel­u­gas are a highly mo­bile, sen­tient species,” ex­plains Rob. “Their cap­tors in­stantly de­stroyed their strong so­cial bonds by rip­ping apart the pod dur­ing the cap­ture process, tak­ing only the young­sters into cap­tiv­ity.”

It is es­ti­mated that about 3,000 whales and dol­phins are kept in cap­tiv­ity in 300 fa­cil­i­ties in 50 coun­tries. “There are at least 61 ma­jor fa­cil­i­ties in China alone, with an­other 36 large-scale projects due to open in the next two years,” Rob says. In re­sponse, Whale and Dol­phin Con­ser­va­tion has part­nered with the Sea Life Trust to open the world’s first sanc­tu­ary to res­cue and re­ha­bil­i­tate cap­tive whales.

The truth is, though, that the wild is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly in­hos­pitable for bel­u­gas. Bel­u­gas con­tinue to be hunted (legally) for meat by in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties in Alaska and Canada, as well as some parts of Rus­sia and Green­land. But per­haps most

im­por­tantly, cli­mate change is de­stroy­ing their Arc­tic habi­tat.

There has been lim­ited spec­u­la­tion over why Benny the Thames bel­uga was seen so far from his Arc­tic home. Some posited he or she may have be­come con­fused by ship­ping traf­fic (the noise pro­duced by which can dis­turb echolo­ca­tion). But most likely, warm­ing sea tem­per­a­tures are caus­ing food short­ages, forc­ing whales like this one to travel fur­ther afield.

I wit­nessed the ef­fects of cli­mate change on bel­u­gas first-hand when I was on lo­ca­tion in Alaska and a call came in to the BBC’s Blue Planet of­fice. A friend of mine, Glenn Wil­liams (now a wildlife of­fi­cer based in Iqaluit, the cap­i­tal of the Cana­dian ter­ri­tory of Nu­navut), was telling the pro­ducer that there were bel­u­gas in a savs­sat – an area be­hind a band of ice that cuts ma­rine mam­mals off from the open sea – about 50km out from Grise Fiord, an Inuit ham­let in the eastern Cana­dian Arc­tic.

Nowhere to go

The whales had been spot­ted by an Inuk com­ing back from a seal-hunt­ing trip. Sev­eral hun­dred square kilo­me­tres of what would usu­ally have been solid sea ice had been bro­ken up a few days ear­lier by an un­sea­son­ably strong spring storm. The ice had been blown away and a huge polynya – an area of open wa­ter – had been cre­ated. In the few days of flat calm that fol­lowed, a pod of 70 or so bel­u­gas had come much fur­ther north than nor­mal, into the fjord, tak­ing ad­van­tage of the open area to dive for food. But a sud­den cold snap of –35°C nights had re­frozen the en­tire area, and the bel­u­gas were now trapped in the savs­sat.

The hard skin of their melon, the bump on the top of their heads, en­ables bel­u­gas to head­butt thin ice to push it up high enough to cre­ate an air space un­der­neath to breathe from. How­ever, they couldn’t do that with this ice, as it had thick­ened very quickly. Only by re­peat­edly sur­fac­ing in the same place could they keep a hole open that would en­sure their sur­vival. There was nowhere else to sur­face for miles in any di­rec­tion. Trapped bel­u­gas – po­lar bears don’t miss an op­por­tu­nity like that, and nei­ther do film-mak­ers.

A week later, we were step­ping down from the ‘Twin Ot­ter’ air­craft in Grise Fjord, with all the lo­gis­tics ar­ranged – guides, food, snow mo­biles, sledges, fuel, camp­ing gear and cam­eras. Three days af­ter that, we were be­side the savs­sat. Signs of car­nage were all around – snow bright red with the blood of bel­uga car­casses on the ice, stripped of their blub­ber. In the hole, the sur­vivors still sur­faced to breathe. Vir­tu­ally all of them had deep wounds around their blow holes.

Feed­ing frenzy

The po­lar bears had been feast­ing. It had been so easy for them a month ago with the hole a mere cou­ple of me­tres or so in di­am­e­ter. With so many bel­u­gas trapped, there would have been a con­tin­ual run of whales sur­fac­ing to breathe – bears could rip at the blow­holes, fa­tally weak­en­ing the whales. Many must have drifted away to die un­der the ice, but a dozen had been dragged out onto the sur­face of the ice.

Un­for­tu­nately, we were just too late for the ac­tion. We set up camp a kilo­me­tre away and took turns to watch the hole, but only one bear turned up in the 10 days we were there. I filmed his three un­suc­cess­ful

at­tempts to jump on top of the whales, but the spring weather was warm­ing and the edges of the hole were melt­ing. The odds had tipped in favour of the whales – they could sur­face so that they were just too far from the side of the hole to be grabbed by any of the bears lurk­ing nearby.

A whale en­trap­ment like that had last been seen by the Inuit of Grise Fjord back in the 1960s but, the way the ice con­di­tions are chang­ing in the Arc­tic, it could be­come a much more com­mon sight. The an­nual cy­cle of the sea ice break-up in spring, and its ref­or­ma­tion in au­tumn, is be­ing dis­rupted by cli­mate change in the high Arc­tic. In­ex­orably warmer tem­per­a­tures are driv­ing the cre­ation of a pos­i­tive feed­back loop in the ice – push­ing ever more changes.

We know from long-term mea­sure­ments by sub­marines and satel­lites that the av­er­age thick­ness of the sea ice cov­er­ing the Arc­tic Basin is about 40 per cent less than it was 40 years ago, down from about 8m to 5m. And in the sum­mer, ice cover is about half the area it was: 3.5 mil­lion km², down from 7 mil­lion km².

Sup­pose we look at the sit­u­a­tion in April, when the warmer spring air tem­per­a­tures mean that the ice breaks up a lit­tle ear­lier than, say, 20 years ago. The black open wa­ter ap­pears sooner, and it’s more ex­pan­sive. More black wa­ter leads to the ocean warm­ing more over the sum­mer than pre­vi­ously, which in turn means it re­freezes later in the au­tumn, which means thin­ner ice over win­ter, which means break up ear­lier the next spring, which means more black wa­ter over sum­mer... you get the idea.

Bel­u­gas in the fu­ture

Back in the Thames, months later, Benny’s far­ing okay – for now. Bel­u­gas are adept at sur­viv­ing in shal­low wa­ters and the onset of win­ter brings cooler wa­ter tem­per­a­tures with it. The hope is that he or she will find a way home be­fore spring­time – a heat­wave would be very bad news. If noth­ing else, Benny should be within a pod. Bel­u­gas are highly so­cial crea­tures – they com­mu­ni­cate via a vari­a­tion of chirps, whis­tles, tweets and chirrups. It’s no sur­prise that the sailors of old called bel­u­gas ‘sea ca­naries’. I once swam with bel­u­gas in the wild and the ef­fect was like be­ing sur­rounded by a flock of in­vis­i­ble song­birds. In the past, min­ers used ca­naries to alert them to dan­ger­ous gases, and it’s about time we heeded the warn­ing of our ‘sea ca­naries’ to­day, and par­tic­u­larly Benny’s por­ten­tous ap­pear­ance in our wa­ters.

DOUG AL­LAN is a multi-award­win­ning wildlife and doc­u­men­tary cam­era­man whose TV cred­its in­clude BBC One’s Blue Planet.


Whale and Dol­phin Con­ser­va­tion:

Above: bel­u­gas can use their pec­toral fins to hold po­si­tion with a sculling move­ment. Be­low: 'Benny' is spot­ted in the River Thames.

Clock­wise from top left: a bel­uga's 'smile' is a re­sult of its rare abil­ity among cetaceans to al­ter mouth shape when pro­duc­ing sounds; once trapped within ice, bel­u­gas can be­come an easy tar­get for po­lar bears; the Sea Life Trust bel­uga whale sanc­tu­ary, in part­ner­ship with Whale and Dol­phin Con­ser­va­tion, will re­ceive its first res­cued whales in spring 2019; about 3,000 whales and dol­phins are cap­tive.

Signs of car­nage were all around – snow bright red with the blood of bel­uga car­casses on the ice.Will bel­u­gas cope with in­creased in­sta­bil­ity in sea ice caused as a re­sult of cli­mate change, or will we see more ven­tur­ing fur­ther afield?

Head The large, bul­bous melon is made from fatty tis­sue and is used as an acous­tic lens to fo­cus echolo­ca­tion sig­nals.Skin Born dark grey with a blue­brown tinge, they turn pure white be­tween 5 to 12 years. The body is wrapped in a thick layer of blub­ber to pro­tect it from icy Arc­tic wa­ters.Face One of only two cetacean species, along with Ir­rawaddy dol­phins, that can al­ter face shape when pro­duc­ing sounds.Dor­sal ridge To re­duce heat loss, there is a low dor­sal ridge in­stead of a dor­sal fin, made of tough skin to break through sur­face ice.

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