Every summer, from the Arctic Ocean to the Churchill River in southern Canada, waters flood with thousands of migrating beluga whales. The whales spend their time in the river, which flows into the Hudson Bay, to give birth to calves, feed, and molt. Since so many enthusiasts won't get the chance to see this enchanting migration in-person, Polar Bears International, an Arctic conservation non-profit, and Explore.org host a beluga whale live cam event each year along with a live chat, reports Dustin Nelson for Thrillist.
This year the event begins today, July 15, in honor of Arctic Sea Ice Day. Organizers are hoping the event will raise more interest in sea ice and increase public awareness of the Arctic ecosystem and the animals living there, Stephanie Pappas reports for Live Science. Footage of the beluga whales is captured by the research vessel Delphi that uses two cameras, one underwater and one above deck, to observe the 55,000 migrating mammals.
During the winter, the Hudson Bay freezes over, forcing the whales to head north to more open areas. In the summer, when the ice melts, the belugas return to the more hospitable waters, where killer whales are sparse and food is abundant, Live Science reports. Some experts suspect that the estuary's warm and less salty waters also benefit younger calves that haven't developed their complete blubber exterior and help adults undergoing their annual molt.
The beluga whale is classified as a species under "least concern" by the ICUN RedList, but some beluga whale populations are critically endangered. For example, researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and NOAA Fisheries are researching how to reverse the decline of a vulnerable beluga whale population in Cook Inlet, Alaska. Only 300 members in the group remain despite protections placed in 2006. To see what may be affecting this population of whales, the researchers are taking skin tissue samples to see how the microbiome in the skin compared to healthy populations is different and the role it plays in healthy groups.
Another goal of the beluga cameras is to monitor each whale's health. "We want to build up monitoring so if threats appear or if that population changes, we can see that before we get to a critical spot," Stephen Petersen, director of conservation and research at the Assiniboine Park Conservancy in Canada says to Live Science. Petersen also runs the Beluga Bits citizen science project, where anyone interested in monitoring whales can view the beluga cams and collect screenshots of whales they see during the migration season event in July and August. If summer whale watching isn't enough, anyone can get involved and help identify more whales from the project year-round at zooinverse.org. Any identifications help marine biologists track and recognize which whales return to the same location year after year.