My summer with the white whales

Valeria Vergara shares her experience researching beluga whale communication.

Dot is back!” exclaims Jaclyn from atop our beluga observation tower. We photo-identified this female beluga during our second field day. “That dimple below her dorsal ridge isn’t just a charming beauty mark, it’ll help us re-sight her over the summer…and hopefully next summer too!” – Jaclyn tweeted. Now, only a day later, Dot is back with a 2–3-year-old grey juvie in tow.  We are starting to get to know this year’s belugas! 

Dot became a regular visitor, and her juvenile sometimes swam with a different female. “Like us, belugas sometimes babysit for each other. Unlike us however, it’s the little ones who choose their babysitters,” explains Jaclyn, whose study on alloparental care in wild belugas has taught us a great deal about how beluga whales raise their young.  

This is our second field season on the Grande Île de Kamouraska, where Jaclyn Aubin, seasoned beluga researcher and my graduate student (who recounts our first 2021 season) is leading a project that is very close to my heart: Do belugas have true vocal dialects? Do vocal repertoires support the existence of beluga female communities in the St Lawrence Estuary? Jaclyn’s research may provide the answers. 

Tents in a forest next to the ocean.
View of our camp. Photo by Valeria Vergara.
Small skinny island in the fog.
Beluga research island in the fog. Photo by Jaclyn Aubin.

Three communities of belugas

Photo identification and genetic data suggest that female belugas in the St. Lawrence form three communities – distinct assemblages of individual females in preferred areas (known as South Shore, Upstream, and Saguenay communities). If this is the case, each community may be acoustically identified by its contact call repertoire, because our research has shown that much like human names, contact calls may be unique to only one or a few belugas.  If the contact call repertoires also share call characteristics specific to each community, then belugas would become the third cetacean species, along with killer whales and sperm whales, to show true sympatric dialects.  

To answer these intriguing questions, we are building a catalogue of photo-identified individuals in three locations that correspond to the three presumed communities and we are pairing such catalogues with acoustic recordings at those same locations. Part of Jaclyn’s work will be to review the recordings and extract and classify the contact calls from each location to build an acoustic repertoire…an onerous task. 

Woman on top of a research tower with blue skies and trees in the background.
Marie Ana photo IDing belugas from the tower. Photo by Valeria Vergara.

Kamouraska Island

Kamouraska Island is at the center of one of these beluga communities, receiving the daily visit of beluga whales that go about their lives right under the observation tower, undisturbed by our presence. Ending the day with belugas and waking up to belugas is the way of the island.

The tiny island (only 1.5 km long, and no more than 400 m in width) has two single human made structures: a lighthouse and a helicopter landing pad. With 25 bird species, including large breeding colonies of great blue herons, cormorants, and common eiders, in addition to the nearly constant presence of beluga whales dotting the waters, the feeling of wildness is absolute…and divine! If you have ever experienced the eerie howl of grey seals at night while the full moon sets on the St. Lawrence shores, you will agree that this is nothing short of magical.

Small skinny island in the fog.
Beluga research island in the fog. Photo by Jaclyn Aubin.
Looking down at the research tower with research equipment.
On the beluga tower. Photo by Valeria Vergara.

An empty (of humans) island needs some hard work to make it both a home and a research station for 3 weeks. It took a full day of work despite wonderful help;  a generous group of ROMM (Marine Mammal Observation Network) staff helped us unload all the materials onto the island, and Jaclyn’s dad stayed the day to build the tall tower.  By the end of that first day we had our invaluable tower ready, we had connected the beluga video transmission system and solar panels, erected the kitchen and gear tents, organized our food and water supplies (no reliable sources of fresh water on the island), and last but not least, ensured the smooth workings of the solar shower and the compostable porta potty. 

Life on the island revolved around our tower shifts, which afforded us a bird’s eye view of the whales to photograph them and observe them. Jaclyn, Marie-Ana Mikus (my long-time research assistant, beluga acoustician extraordinaire, and now part of the Raincoast team) and I took turns to spend 2-hour shifts perched on our high observation platform, secured to it with a climbing harness (the strong winds made it shaky up there).  

Two women wearing raingear smiling.
Jaclyn and Marie Ana. Photo by Valeria Vergara.
Mother beluga with a baby.
Mom and yearling. Photo by Valeria Vergara.

The tower observer took notes on group composition, presence of newborns and juveniles, behaviour, predominant herd activity, as well as on any successfully photographed individual (Was the photo of the left or the right dorsal ridge? Was the individual accompanied by others? Were its companions photographed as well?). The two of us that were not on the tower at any given time worked on flying the drone for the beluga health assessment photogrammetry study we are contributing to, downloading data, transcribing field notes, or cooking our meals. Island life was busy. 

The island and its non-human visitors became our world, and our excitement at new observations never subsided. I remember the day we spotted the first newborn calf under the tower, its fetal folds gleaming in the sun, riding its mom’s back as newborn calves often do. We were elated. Every surviving little one is a ray of hope!

This newborn beluga calf spent quite a while alone at the surface. Mom’s fluking and long dives indicated that she was feeding. Newborn calves are left alone at the surface while the adults dive to forage for fish. How do they stay in touch? Through sound! And since newborns speak quite softly, especially during their first week of life, underwater noise pollution can interfere with mother-calf contact. At Raincoast we work to understand and mitigate this threat to at risk cetaceans, including belugas and killer whales.

The arrival of the male belugas

As I write this, the island days blend into each other…but the day the males arrived stands out.  Their telltale acoustic signal? The surface foghorn! After years listening to and watching a species, their sounds become familiar, often signaling what’s about to be seen. I was on the tower when I heard the unmistakable foghorn call, which I’ve only ever heard from males. Sure enough, 7 large whales, presumably males, soon appeared under the observation tower. Beluga male groups are also notoriously chatty. Will the recordings reveal a whole different set of contact calls on this particular date? 

Aka the biker gang, as we called them in the Arctic, the males tend to move in unison, and they are profoundly tactile with each other. In fact, males often engage in sociosexual behaviour, believed to foster the formation of positive social relationships with same-sex conspecifics, solidifying long-term friendships, and alliances.  This encounter was no exception, which delighted us all. 

Pod of belugas swimming in the ocean.
Group of male belugas. Photo by Valeria Vergara.

Farewell to the whales 

On my last day on the island, Jaclyn and Marie-Ana, such capable researchers with whom I’ve had the honour to share a beluga tower year after year, dropped me off on land (racing an approaching storm!) so I could fly home. The wonderful Charlène Dupasquier, marine biologist with the ROMM, replaced me, and together, this great team kept the beluga research going the rest of the summer. A good field team is everything really, and this team is gold. 

I know that we all feel privileged for this chance to look into the lives of these sociable, tactile, loquacious beings. No matter how many years I have worked with these beautiful white whales, they never cease to amaze me.   And when we are on this research island, belugas simply flood our thoughts the whole day long, so after a beluga-filled day, stimulating camp dinner conversations about – you guessed it! –  belugas, are the norm.  

We all share a deep curiosity: What is it like to be these aquatic, intelligent, cultural beings that see through sound? 

May every little bit we learn about this species increase the chances of recovery of this endangered population.

Note: The St. Lawrence acoustic research project is part of the Window on Belugas project, a collaboration between Raincoast, the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), the Marine Mammal Observation Network (ROMM) and the University of Windsor. SARA permit QUE-LEP-012-2022

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Research scientist, Adam Warner conducting genetics research in our genetics lab.
Photo by Alex Harris / Raincoast Conservation Foundation.