They sound like cosmic radio transmissions, sent from another solar system, or galaxy.
But no, these resonating squeaks and whistles are emanating from the beluga whales swimming in the waters off of Churchill, Canada, situated along the vast Hudson Bay in Manitoba. Cameras beneath boats livestream the explore.org beluga whale cam while an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, records the belugas’ effusive, and at times otherworldly, vocalizations.
“They are called the ‘canaries of the sea’ for how chatty they are,” said Alysa McCall, a staff scientist with Polar Bear International, which operates the camera-rigged beluga boats.
Now — right now — is the time to watch the beluga cam. The bulbous-headed Arctic mammals typically come to Churchill waters in late June or early July, but depart by late August. “It’s a short, awesome window,” noted Stephen Peterson, head of conservation and research at Canada’s Assiniboine Park Zoo, who researches belugas. (Though, the beluga cam channel often plays past highlights of beluga activity.)
The beluga whales come in great numbers. In the waters off of Churchill alone around 2,000 belugas have been observed at one time, noted Peterson.
“[The population] is quite large and robust,” he said.
Like many underwater species, belugas are relatively elusive. And unlike orcas, they don’t have an easily identifiable dorsal fin. So Peterson uses the beluga cam footage as a valuable opportunity to study the whales, identify individuals (often from unique scars), and grasp their complex family and social dynamics.
The cams provide a wealth of footage. “This is a little gold mine that we can work with,” Peterson said.
And you can help, too. Peterson runs the Beluga Bits project, which allows anyone interested to take “snapshots” of the beluga whales and also collect data about and classify the animals.
Though, understanding the language of the beluga is enormously difficult. “Because they have so much range, it’s been hard to tease apart what they’re saying,” said Peterson, but noted that scientists are researching beluga vocalizations.
The beluga whales likely come to Churchill waters for a number of reasons, he said. They’re almost certainly following food, and they likely use the remaining sea ice to avoid their predators, killer whales. Without dorsal fins on their backs, “the belugas can get right under the ice,” noted McCall, which can help them sneak around and elude the killer whales (which have tall, prominent fins).
“They seem kind of happy.”
Though these beluga populations are thriving, the same cannot be said for their Arctic counterparts in Churchill, polar bears. The bears depend on Arctic sea ice to hunt, but Arctic sea ice is in sharp decline. Since the 1980s, the Churchill region has seen a 30 percent decline in polar bears, which translates to a loss of around 400 bears.
“The trend is predicted to continue,” said McCall. “Most projections say Hundson Bay won’t have sea ice by mid to late century.”
Amid an incessant stream of terrible news from the Arctic — including unprecedented fires and record losses of ice — the beluga cam provides a way to appreciate the benefits of conserving wildlife, and their habitats. This is especially apparent in the beluga, which seems to exist in a state of unexplained, continual joy.
“They seem kind of happy,” said McCall. “They are just so delightful to watch.”