The Belugas Have Arrived! Tune Into Their Migration on Arctic Sea Ice Day
The beluga whale migration in Churchill always brings a smile to my face – it’s hard not to grin when they look like they’re smiling themselves. Often called the canaries of the sea because they’re so chatty, belugas are a curious, charismatic species that seem always to be happily singing as they swim.
Believe it or not, even in the summer, my mind is on sea ice. Monitoring the patterns of summer Arctic sea ice can give us important clues about the future of belugas, polar bears, and the planet as a whole. That’s why we’re celebrating Arctic Sea Ice Day today (July 15), to share this ecosystem with the world and inspire action to protect it.
Though they may be in a remote place, we’re so excited to be able to bring the belugas right to you. Today marks the kick-off of the wonderful Beluga Whale Live Cam in partnership with explore.org. Be sure to watch the live feed with sound on, so you can hear the whales’ amazing vocalizations through the hydrophone.
We have two cameras streaming from both above and below the deck of Polar Bears International’s Beluga Boat, so you can watch the white whales from overhead (don’t forget to look for polar bears on the coast!) and underwater, often with grey babies in tow.
This year we’ve finally named our famous vessel, both for fun and safety reasons. We’ve decided on Delphi, short for the beluga whale’s scientific name, Delphinapterus leucas. The genus name, Delphinapterus, means “dolphin without a fin”, and the species name, leucas, means “white.”
The live streams will be even better this year since Delphi has been getting some serious camera upgrades. My colleague, BJ Kirschhoffer, and the Churchill team recently installed a new underwater camera that has a new mount to automate its lifting and lowering. Other staff members, like local Dave Allcorn, are already busy taking Delphi Selfies.
Sea Ice: Beluga’s Protector
Why would a whale, a mammal that needs to breathe surface air, live where sea ice covers the surface of the ocean?
Unlike many other whales, belugas lack a dorsal fin. With smooth backs, belugas can swim close to the sea ice and find breathing holes without getting blocked in by ice chunks. Belugas are relatively slow swimmers, so getting close to the ice allows them some refuge from their predator: the orca whale. Orcas have dorsal fins and cannot easily navigate around chunky Arctic sea ice, keeping them out of the belugas’ space. Also, the lack of a dorsal fin helps the beluga whale retain heat, whereas whales with dorsal fins could lose heat through their back fin and have difficulty regulating their body temperature in frigid waters. The beluga truly is an Arctic-adapted whale.
However, belugas aren’t surrounded by ice their entire lives. During ice-free periods in the summer months, about two-thirds of the world’s beluga population (approximately 150,000 whales) spend time in more southern Canadian waters. Belugas migrate to areas such as the Churchill River to enjoy the (relatively) warmer waters with their newborns, molt, feed on abundant small fish, and seek refuge from predators. The Churchill River is shallow: belugas can swim in very shallow waters, but orcas cannot.
Sea Ice Affects Us All: 2022 Outlook
Arctic sea ice is important to us all – it’s not just for polar bears.
Sea ice acts like the Earth’s air conditioner. By reflecting heat away from the Earth and preventing it from being absorbed into the ocean, sea ice helps keep our planet cool and regulates the Earth’s climate.
Additionally, sea ice is as important to the Arctic ecosystem as soil is to a forest. The sea ice forms the base of the entire Arctic food chain, with many creatures depending on it for different reasons. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform for hunting seals, traveling, and some aspects of reproduction. Arctic seals, like ringed or bearded seals, use sea ice as a platform to rest and reproduce. And many northern communities rely on sea ice for traveling and access to food.
We’re keeping extra close tabs on the sea ice right now. Arctic Sea Ice Day roughly aligns with the historic “break up” date in Hudson Bay, a tipping point that marks the ice melting to the point that polar bears begin heading back to land. Lack of sea ice means a lack of access to their seal prey.
Once on land, the bears are essentially food-deprived and begin a fasting period, losing up to 1 kg of weight per day. The bears have adapted to being on land for several months at a time, but the breakup is getting earlier, and freeze-up is getting later. Now, Hudson Bay polar bears are on land for 3-4 weeks longer than they were just a few decades ago, expanding their fasting period and forcing them to rely on their fat stores for longer periods of time.
This year, Hudson Bay is experiencing unusual breakup patterns. The northern and eastern parts of the bay are mostly ice-free, potentially impacting the Foxe Basin and Davis Strait polar bear populations. But the western and southeastern parts of the bay have a little more ice so far, making this a better breakup season for the Western and Southern Hudson Bay polar bear populations. Bears are starting to return to the land where they’ll stay until at least November. Hopefully, they have enough body fat to sustain themselves healthily until then.
Climate warming is the greatest threat to Arctic sea ice. In June 2022, the Hudson Bay region experienced temperatures 4 to 5 degrees Celsius (7 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average. Since 1979, June Arctic sea ice extent has declined by 1.97 million square kilometres (761,000 square miles) of sea ice, an area equivalent to about three times the size of Texas. Time will tell what happens in July.
No matter where you are in the world, here are some ways you can make a real difference.
Talk about it! Have meaningful climate conversations to help make the need to take action to curb carbon emissions a kitchen table issue and policy priority, using these tips from PBI :
- Join us on social media with #ArcticSeaIceDay #TalkAboutIt #ClimateAction #SaveOurSeaIce
- Find action tools, social media content, and more in our Arctic Sea Ice Day Toolkit.
- Take part in the Beluga Bits project, capturing and classifying live cam moments.
- Learn these facts about Arctic Sea Ice.
- Check out how companies like MINI USA are doing their part to reduce emissions, committing to an all-electric future and supporting PBI. Collaboration on all levels, from corporations to politicians, is key to slowing global warming.
- Donate or symbolically Adopt a Polar Bear: your contribution will go towards critical Arctic research and conservation efforts.
On-Camera: Tech and Citizen Science
The Beluga Cam and our efforts on the Churchill River also support beluga research. Like most Arctic species, beluga whales are difficult and expensive to study due to their remote habitat. The Beluga Cam feeds into the Beluga Bits citizen science project, a collaboration between the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, explore.org, and Polar Bears International, which asks people to capture and classify screenshots from the Beluga Cam.
Since Beluga Bits was launched, the project has had nearly 22,000 registered participants who’ve contributed nearly 5 million photo classifications and roughly 22,000 volunteer hours.
We’re so excited to celebrate Arctic Sea Ice Day and kick off beluga season – we hope you join us!