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Beluga Whale watching in Solovki

White Sea, White Whale

It was a bright and sunny June day on Cape Beluzhiy when we turned off the engine and just swayed on the waves of the White Sea in complete silence. Somewhere afar, between the shore and the sandspit, the snow-white backs of the Beluga whales appeared every now and again. Stas Zakharov, a marine biologist, took out his smartphone, turned on the music and placed the phone right on the bottom of our rubber dinghy. Joe Dassin was singing over the White Sea.

On the way to Cape Beluzhiy, Stas told us that beluga whales are very musical and curious. When they hear sounds of melodic music they can swim very close to humans. Just a couple minutes later as a confirmation of his words, two white shadows flickered under our boat. The whales just checked to see what was going on, and then swam away. The presence of humans bothers them.

“But why exactly Joe Dassin?” - I wondered. “You can listen to other artists, as well as the classics, I have Joe Dassin in my playlist, but the point is not the musician.” - Zakharov answered. The Beluga whales' musical ear is most likely due to its good vocalization, the large range of sounds that these sea animals can make. Scientists recorded about 80 sound patterns in total that white whales can make, for example, whistling, chirping, bleating, neighing, mooing, grunting, sniffling. And you know, they can actually sing even better than Joe Dassin, well probably.

It turned out that watching the white whales in the wild on Solovki Islands was pretty easy - they come to the shore of the Bolshoi Solovetsky Island in late May or earIy June and stay there until August, or even September. Then they go far away, to the dangerous Arctic waters of the northern seas.

The Beluga whales return to Cape Beluzhiy every summer. They are very conservative and are literally attached to their birthplace. A female white whale gives birth on average about 7 times in her life. And there is a theory that most Arctic Beluga whales produce their offspring only at Cape Beluzhiy. Reproductive clusters - this is what scientists call the beluga whales` summer vacation on Solovki. Adult animals teach their calves all the skills which may be needed in the difficult Arctic life. And here on the shoal, which locals call Beluga`s Luda,  is where new couples are meeting. “The fights between the males are spectacular,” says Stas, “struggling for the female, males are jumping out of the water to a height of half of their body length. Everything is seething and boiling around them." The winner gets the coveted female, of course.

Twice a day, with the low tides, more than a hundred animals come to the shallow shore, where the water warms up nicely and it’s so pleasant to lay and scratch their belly. In total about 700 beluga whales, or 8 reproductive clusters, live in the White Sea. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature about 150,000 belugas live throughout the world, but nobody can tell the exact number. But even with this impressive quantity, it is not easy to survive for a white whale. Many of them die of asphyxiation under the ice, or from polar bear and killer whale attacks. And humans are also dangerous predators. Beluga whaling in the White Sea is still officially permitted! But fortunately it’s rare for a person to use this right.

Cape Beluzhiy is a unique place, the only one in the world where you can watch white whales right from the shore. In 1995, they even built an observation tower where scientists worked in the summer. But this year, it was completely destroyed by the ice. You can easily get to the cape by foot - there are two walking trails.  The first one - along the western shore, via Cape Tolstik. The second one - via Sekirnaya Mountain. But we chose to take water transportation.

Snow-white whales are cautious and skittish.  They are afraid to swim close to a human, and loud sounds of boats drive an entire herd to swim deep under the water. Even if you are watching them from the shore, it is not recommended to be closer than three meters to the water. And if you are on the boat, the distance should be even larger. But with good binoculars, you can see the beluga whales very clearly - grey playful babies frolicking around their moms.  Anxious snow-white mothers don’t let their children out of sight even for a second.

Their color helps determine the age of a beluga whale. Adults are perfectly white, while newborns can be even dark blue or even brownish. Teenagers under five years old are grey. There is a theory that due to evolution the pure white color was given to these whales so that they can merge with the ice.

Beluga whales prefer polar latitudes; they can often be seen in the Seas of the Arctic Ocean and in the northern waters of the Pacific Ocean - the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk. The white whales also live in Greenland and Canada. However, depending on their habitat, marine mammals are very different from each other, primarily by their sounds for communication.  They probably speak different “beluga dialects.” They even have different sizes, for example, the White Sea beluga whales are a little bit smaller than their «relatives» from the Canadian Arctic at about 5.5 meters in length and up to 1.5 tons of weight.

Despite the fact that the rights of beluga whales are listed in the special document «International Wildlife Trade» and in «The Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats», people can still hunt them. Officially, only in the White Sea is it allowed to catch 50 beluga whales a year! Poor animals, especially the babies are of great interest to aquariums. In the Arctic Ocean, this quota is 75 mammals. In Canada, though, beluga whales are closely protected in the five national parks of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its neighbour islands.

  • Orange-fact

    The unique difference between beluga whales and other toothed whales are their facial muscles and a movable neck. A beluga whale can turn its head! And on top of that, white whales can swim on their backs and backwards.



During the five days that we`ve spent on the Solovki islands, just once did we get to Cape Beluzhiy. Due to the weather conditions, rain and fog, white whales swim far into the sea. But even if you have one trip with more or less good weather, the chance to see the toothed whales is almost 95%. Even if the weather is bad, the sky is grey, or it`s rainy and windy, it is still possible to travel to the sea.  There is a perfect alternative - to go to the shoal Sennaya Luda and look at the rusty skeletons of shipwrecks and the nearby bird colonies.

 

You should be very careful upon arrival and while walking around the island. In summer, terns, seagulls, and penguin-like guillemots nest here. The terns can easily attack uninvited guests and unpleasantly peck them. However, since they are mothers, it can be understood.

Another interesting place for animal watching is the island Top. Bearded seals with long moustaches and seals like to bask on its rocks. In the shallow water funny heads stick out like bobbers - those are ringed seals, typical in the Arctic.

When he saw a large bearded seal on the rocks, Stas started to talk about mammals. We got a bit closer to the animal, but the fat guy didn’t even look at us. “The interesting thing about the bearded seal is that, unlike the ringed seal, it gets food from the bottom, digs soil. Like whales, bearded seals communicate with each other through various sounds”.

A harp seal, pretty rare among seals, also comes to the waters of the White Sea, but not in the summer. It does not like warm air and lives on ice floe. This is one of three species of seals that live in the White Sea.  The harp seal comes here in March, and like beluga whales, form here a unique reproductive herd in Russia. From 3 to 8 thousand females give birth to their snow white cubs, those who Pomors hunted every spring until 2010, when, after the active IFAW company, President Putin signed a decree banning the hunting of baby seals in the White Sea.

During the last boat trip, we crossed the geographical borders of the Arkhangelsk region and the Republic of Karelia several times. And I was thinking that white whales, unlike humans, are definitely more free, they need nothing to travel around countries, cross borders and navigate the seas. But, like for a human, their own home is very important to them. The point is that they have a place to return to.

The project "FourSeasons of Russia" is supported by the Russian Geographical Society www.rgo.ru
The route to Solovki is recommended by the Russian Geographical Society.
You can buy a tour to Solovki on the website of "Russia Discovery" www.russiadiscovery.ru

   

    

Another read about Solovki:
Solovki: To feel soulful and come back
The Solovetsky Monastery: "The Chronicle of the Cloister"
Translation: Irina Romanova: @asrtabella1

Photos of Orange Traveler, pictures of beluga whales and seals by Stas Zakharov www.staszakharov.com

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