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.
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.
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.
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Whale and Dolphin Conservation: whales.org
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.