07/06/2012 - Each summer, one of the world’s largest populations of beluga whales returns to the estuaries of southwestern Hudson Bay in northern Canada (maps). As the ice recedes, an estimated 57,000 belugas—nicknamed “canaries of the sea” for their musical calls—migrate to the mouths of the Churchill, Seal, and Nelson rivers. There they feed, molt, and give birth in the shallow waters. But scientists know little about their movements between the estuaries, their feeding habits, and their use of this region.
The Pew Environment Group’s Oceans North Canada, in cooperation with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the province of Manitoba, is launching a three-year study this month to gather data about how belugas rely on the estuaries and to assess the importance of protecting this habitat in the future. The work is also important to local Inuit communities, whose traditional way of life relies on subsistence hunting of marine mammals, including belugas—or “qilalugaq” in Inuktitut. The Inuit hunters and trappers association in Arviat, Nunavut, has expressed support for the project.
A nine-member scientific team will travel to the Seal River on Manitoba’s Hudson Bay on July 11 to spend two weeks tagging up to 10 belugas. The team will include three staff members from Oceans North Canada: Kristin Westdal, a marine biologist, Chris Debicki, Nunavut projects director, and Jeremy Davies, a marine spatial analysis manager. Other participants include: Jack Orr, senior mammal research technician with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans; Jason Hamilton, a biologist from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans; Sandie Black, head of veterinary services for the Calgary Zoo in Calgary, Alberta, and Chris Enright, head of veterinary services at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba; and local crew members. Once the satellite transmitters are attached to the belugas, data will be collected daily about each whale’s behavior, including latitude and longitude, diving depth, and time spent underwater.
The western Hudson Bay belugas make up about 35 percent of the world’s population of the whales, estimated at more than 160,000. They are among the few whales that live year-round in the Arctic and subarctic, spending their winters in dense pack ice south of Baffin Island in Hudson Strait before migrating south to Hudson Bay.
The questions that this study will explore are:
View Our Maps of Seal River Estuary
- How do belugas use the estuaries, and which areas are most important?
- What routes do belugas travel in the summer between the western Hudson Bay estuaries (including the Seal, Churchill, and Nelson river estuaries)?
- How much time do belugas spend diving for food, compared with time at the surface?
- What are the genetic relationships of western Hudson Bay belugas?