Belugas on the Move
Update, January 19, 2016: Theories as to Why the Project was not as Successful as Expected
At the dawn of the beluga seasonal migration, one question remains: where will they winter? This question is at the heart of a new research project launched this week: Belugas on the Move, which aims to understand where and how belugas live when they leave the St. Lawrence Estuary come fall. Satellite telemetry technology and aerial surveys will be used to track male belugas to their winter quarters for several months.
Update – January 19, 2016: Tracking Belugas in Winter: a Technological Challenge
On December 2, 2015, we received the last reading from the last tag. What exactly happened to our transmitters which we had hoped would be operational for much longer? GREMM’s Robert Michaud discusses the theories that might shed some light on why the satellite tag project was not as conclusive as we had anticipated and the steps to be taken in the future. Listen to the interview (in French) on ICI Radio-Canada’s program Bon Pied, Bonne Heure (January 14, 2016).
About the project and updates
It is well known today that the St. Lawrence beluga population is concentrated in the Estuary and the Saguenay Fjord in the summer. Over the past thirty years, much has been learned on the beluga’s distribution and summer habitat thanks to the extraordinary collaboration between a number of scientific institutions. Considerable scientific data have become available and have even been essential to the implementation of protective measures such as critical habitat designation or the creation of the Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park. However, most of these data are collected in summer. What will happen once they leave this sector in late fall? Where do they congregate? What are the driving factors for their choice for a particular sector to spend the cold season and what is that area? These questions remain, even after more than 30 years of research on St. Lawrence belugas.
Data recorded in 1940 as well as data obtained through aerial surveys realized in the early 1990s have provided some information on the presence of belugas in the Gulf of St. Lawrence including off the coasts of the Côte-Nord and Gaspé regions, though information remains scarce and sporadic. The question has been intriguing scientists for many years, but the urgency to address this question has increased with the rise in neonatal mortality observed since 2010 and the fact that this population has been declining since the 2000s. Could a change in their winter habitat, such as increased water temperatures and reduced ice cover, have an impact? These questions remain unanswered to this day. However, several clues to understanding this decline have been put forward by the scientific community. Aerial surveys to estimate beluga distribution outside of summer have been conducted for the past three years by biologist Jean-François Gosselin (Fisheries and Oceans Canada). Only a small proportion of the beluga population in the St. Lawrence was found. Where are the others? Preliminary abundance results of fall, winter and spring surveys conducted in recent years suggest that animals disperse beyond Pointe-des-Monts or even Anticosti Island.
Belugas on the Move is jointly carried out by the GREMM and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and financially supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF Canada) and the Donner Canadian Foundation. This project aims to provide some answers to these numerous questions that remain unanswered concerning the lives of St. Lawrence belugas. The Bleuvet team, including researchers Robert Michaud (GREMM) and Véronique Lesage (DFO), headed back offshore this week for about twenty days in order to place LIMPET-type satellite transmitters on six males to be able to track their movements in the next few months. Satellite tags, shot at the animals from a distance, can transmit data for up to over 100 days. Satellite telemetry has played a key role in science and northern beluga population management in recent decades, revealing long-term movements, site fidelity, habitat preference and range of populations. In collaboration with Jean-François Gosselin, aerial surveys are scheduled as a complement to the project starting in November to find tracked individuals in their winter territory and thereby obtain essential information for determining, amongst other things, critical habitat for St. Lawrence belugas, i.e. one of the strategies outlined in the Recovery Strategy for the Beluga published in 2012. Belugas on the Move is the prelude of another major project: A Year with the Belugas, a scientific mission that will follow belugas for a year, even in their distant wintering grounds. The results obtained from this winter’s satellite monitoring will also pave the way for follow-ups conducted at sea in the year to come with belugas. Follow this project as it unfolds from week to week on Whales Online and our social networks. Stay informed on the breakthroughs of the team, who will unveil new aspects of this promising new project! Join us in our adventure! Learn more: Press release from WWF-Canada Belugas on the Move: Expedition seeks to unveil St. Lawrence beluga mysteries
Our first week of the Belugas on the Move project was rather frustrating. Despite four days of beautiful weather – quite rare in the fall – we were unable to deploy the first satellite transmitter! It’s a challenging task, as we had anticipated, but we are surprised by the first week’s results, or rather the lack thereof! In fact, in the first two days, it proved difficult to locate males. When we did find them … they were on the move and much too quick to attempt to approach them. Over the course of two other days, we had a few opportunities, but no luck: a trigger jam problem and one shot intercepted by…a wave! The shot was good, but an unexpected and unpredictable cresting wave deflected the path of the arrow used to carry the transmitter.
Update – October 21 – Back on the water, but not for long!
We are finally back on the water, but the wind forecasts are depressing: winds from the west, the northwest, briefly from the southwest, and then west again. Fall is here. Yesterday, with offshore winds reaching 30 knots, we had to return to the Saguenay. At the base of Cap de Boule, just 5 km upstream from Tadoussac, we passed a small herd of females with their young. We continue up to Anse de Roche, where we joined a larger and more dispersed herd. There are several females with young, but these extended herds are sometimes accompanied by a few groups of males. We comb the herd in search of bulls. We find four, in two groups of two. By the time we catch up to them, we are near Baie Sainte-Marguerite. Here, with the course of the Saguenay lying on more of a west-east axis, the winds can be brutal… We head home.
The winds are still too strong today… it’s a day in the lab!
Update – October 23, 2015: No Luck Tagging, but an Awesome Surprise!
Despites the ever disastrous weather forecasts, we’ve managed to find a few oases of calm water in the past three days. We’re short on luck once again, though we did come quite close. In fact, we didn’t observe any males at close range this week. We will have to wait for more abundantly clear skies to venture downriver, off the shores of Les Bergeronnes or Les Escoumins, where we encounter males more frequently. Our most recent forays amongst the herds of females allowed us however to spot a number of Saguenay faithfuls such as DL0030, Yogi and Miss Frontenac. But the big surprise is the return of DL0169, who has been known since 1977. Yes, 1977! DL0169, whom we’ve nicknamed the “Sag Queen”, is, or rather used to be, one of the most faithful visitors to the Saguenay. We hadn’t spotted her since 2009! Where in the world could she have been?
We wait for the next day with good weather to resume our research on males. Coming soon… Why do we target males?
Update – October 26, 2015 – Why do We Target Males?
The attachment system of the satellite tags that we are attempting to deploy this fall is made up of two “crampons” that firmly anchor themselves in the subcutaneous tissues of the animal’s upper back. The technique, already used on belugas in the Arctic, is unprecedented with those of the St. Lawrence. For the inaugural application of this technique, the team is in search of large, robust, more “imposing” individuals, which is to say males. Adult bulls measure approximately 3.6 to 4 m and weigh between 450 and 1000 kg; cows: 3 to 3.6 m, 250 to 700 kg.
Update – October 30, 2015: What kind of satellite tags do we use?
A Sophisticated Spy LIMPET (Low Impact Minimally Percutaneous Electronic Transmitter) satellite tags are widely used on a number of cetacean species. They measure around 5 cm and are filled with electronic components coated in an epoxy resin. They are waterproof and resist water pressure when the animal dives. The tag is installed on an arrow that is propelled by an air rifle from the deck of the Bleuvet, which should be positioned between 7-9 m and at a 90° angle from the animal. Its two titanium bolts are designed to anchor into the subcutaneous tissue of the animal’s upper back. Once the tag is secured, the SPOT transmitter sends a signal from the animal to the satellites of the Argos system. These satellites return the information to land-based data processing centres that calculate the position of the tag, i.e. the location of the animal. In order to increase the battery lifetime of this “spy”, only the tag’s GPS position is collected, thus allowing it to emit a signal for up to one hundred days. For a close-up view of this “informant”, watch the Radio-Canada report Où les bélugas passent l’hiver (in French), particularly the first 20 seconds.
After several weeks of waiting and frustration, we finally get lucky. This afternoon, we managed to deploy our first two satellite tags. The tags were placed just below the dorsal crest of two males. Their position is almost perfect. Our goal was actually a little higher on the back, where the tissues are slightly more corneous and perhaps stronger. It is nevertheless hoped that the tag’s adhesion to the flank will endure. First tagging:
Second animal followed:
13:39: second transmitter in place!
This position, however, provides good exposure whenever the animal surfaces. Every second of surface exposure increases the chance of communication with satellites. The more such communications with satellites are numerous, the better the tracking. We have already received some signals from the satellites and soon will be able to share with you information on these first two tagged belugas “on the move”. While we were concerned that the temperature would be the limiting factor of this new project, our biggest challenge so far has been to find males. To the point where we were beginning to wonder if they had already headed east toward their wintering grounds. But alas, since the end of last week, we encountered several large herds composed almost exclusively of adult males. This afternoon they were off Les Bergeronnes. Our objective remains to deploy a total of six tags. If the weather cooperates, we’ll be back on the water tomorrow.
In reference to the Greek word Argos, a multi-eyed giant, the Argos monitoring system is a worldwide satellite location and data collection system. This system, created in 1978 by the Centre national d’études spatiales (CNES), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), locates tags anywhere on the planet. At first the system was used for marine safety, but today it is mostly used in the context of scientific research (population management, oceanography, climatology, etc.).
Once the tag is attached to an object or a living being, it sends a signal to the satellites of the Argos system. These satellites return the information to land-based data processing centres that calculate the position of the tag. The processed data are then transferred to users around the globe. With low power consumption for greater durability and advanced miniaturization, the Argos tags can be attached to all types of animals, even small ones like the Eurasian hobby (a species of falcon) on which the tags weigh 5 g. This is an effective system for long-distance monitoring. At the present time, 22,000 Argos transmitters are active around the world; 8,000 animals are being tracked, including some 1,800 marine animals. In 2010, 24 tiger sharks, tracked for 3 years, unveiled their annual 7,500 km marathon migration from the Caribbean islands to the North Atlantic; 5550 elephant seals fitted with Argos tags in the Southern Ocean collected over 240,000 temperature and salinity profiles over the period 2004-2013; Argos tags deployed on hundreds of humpback whales off Brazil revealed that to get from their wintering grounds west of the South American continent to their Antarctic feeding grounds, whales take remote routes through the high seas in the southern reaches of the South Atlantic, near South Georgia. In the St. Lawrence, 20 Argos satellite tags have been placed on blue whales since 2010 to identify areas used by the population outside the coastal areas of the Estuary and northwestern Gulf. Since this fall, the Belugas on the Move project has opted for satellite telemetry technology to tag male belugas and track them to their wintering grounds. Update – November 5 – Make That Three! Tuesday, we deployed a third tag on another male. This time, the location of the tag is a little lower on the flank, to the point that even upon examination of the photos, we were not quite sure that the tag had adhered to the beluga. Since deployment, we have received a few signals from this third tag. We have yet to obtain a reading of its position, however. It appears that the position of the tag on the animal does not provide sufficient exposure of the antenna to enable a localization. The fact that the satellite is receiving signals, however, confirms that the tag is indeed attached to our beluga. We continue to be hopeful that we will receive some transmissions that would allow the ettraient au Argos system to calculate the position of this third beluga.
This new project presents several challenges. Tagging the animal in the right spot is a big one. The target is small and it moves around, as do we. The last tagging is a bit disappointing for the team. We do our utmost to maximize the chances of success. In this regard, we returned to the test bench Wednesday to recheck all the settings of the air rifle to optimize the positioning of the next tag. Meanwhile… our first two tagged belugas are spending much of their time on the shelf south of the head of the Laurentian Channel.
Update – November 9 – Belugas on Land!
Since Friday, the Bleuvet team has been enjoying some down-time. In sailor lingo, we would say that the team has been grounded. A well-deserved break, by the way. Our belugas are always on the move. They also seem to have gone for a stroll on “terra firma”! The latest positions received and plotted on the map below suggest that DLS01 (the first beluga tagged) traversed Île Verte while DLS02 (the second) passed through the municipality of Sacré-Cœur to get to Baie Sainte-Marguerite in the Saguenay.
When viewing the maps, you’ll discover movements over land. These maps are plotted from the positions calculated by the Argos system , before we applied filters that will eliminate “implausible” positions. Each position is accompanied by an assessment that takes into account the number and quality of the signals used in the calculation. The “apparent” round trip of one of our belugas in the Saguenay, for example, was reconstituted from Type B positions, i.e. the least reliable positions. We are currently working on developing a map generator that can easily make the necessary adjustments to retain the best locations and make it easier for us to monitor our belugas. Fortunately, a large proportion of the positions received are of very high quality. Their accuracy is estimated to be within a few hundred metres. For the purposes of this study that aims to track the migratory movements of belugas, such accuracy will be more than sufficient. We still haven’t heard anything from the third tagged beluga. We continue to receive signals from the tag, but still haven’t picked up a position. If temperatures allow, we will head back out to sea next Wednesday with the goal of deploying our last three tags…
Update – November 13, 2015 – A Short Week on the Water
After a well deserved break earlier in the week, we resumed our work on Wednesday. Our patrol on the Saguenay is unsuccessful, but we encounter Céline for an umteenth time, accompanied by a second-year calf. Céline is definitely the “Queen of the Saguenay” this year! The following day, conditions in the Estuary allow us to venture farther off shore. Good news: early in the afternoon, we locate a large herd of male belugas… but we’re experiencing problems with the boat! We’re left with no choice but to return to the Tadoussac marina for repairs. As soon as the failure is fixed and weather conditions are favourable, we will head back out onto the water. We have still yet to receive a position for the third tagged beluga, but we are tracking the first two individuals, who are still present in the area between Tadoussac, Les Bergeronnes and Trois-Pistoles. Here is a new map which excludes land positions (see the November 9 update): Click on the map to track the movements of the tagged belugas. Male 1: blue; male 2: yellow. The position of the last day is marked with a star.
We’ve received some bad news this week. As we continue our efforts at sea to deploy the last three satellite tags that we have, we stopped receiving signals from both belugas that had been tagged on November 2. The first one stopped transmitting data last Thursday, November 12. We remained alert, hoping that it was a temporary interruption, as had occurred a few times in the case of blue whales being tracked by our colleague Véronique Lesage of Fisheries and Oceans Canada. When the second beluga “went quiet” on Sunday, we began to lose hope. For now, it is impossible to know the cause of these interruptions. In our initial analysis, we consider the possibility that positioning the tags on the belugas’ flanks rather than on their dorsal ridges may have reduced the effectiveness of the attachment. So we’re back to square one. We’re now without any “informants” to track belugas this winter! After a series of adjustments to our equipment, we’ll head back out to sea. We still have about ten days or so before we have to take our research boat Bleuvet out of the water. We’re obviously hopeful for good weather… and a little luck! Click on the map to track the movements of the tagged belugas. Male 1: blue; male 2: yellow. The position of the last day is marked with a star.
Update – November 20, 2015 – Here We Go Again!
Yesterday was a happier day, as we managed to deploy two of the three satellite transmitters we had remaining for the season. Everything transpired quickly, with the two taggings being performed just 30 minutes apart.
The top photos show the first tagged beluga; the bottom two show the second animal.
In fact, our two new “informants” were swimming side by side in the same group. Shortly after the first transmitter was placed, the group returned to its initial (pre-tagging) behaviour. The group swam back and forth under the boat several times. It was too good of an opportunity to be missed! After the second tagging, the group maintained its composition and we spotted the two belugas together several more times. The first locations broadcast by the satellite suggest that our two new “spies” did not stray far from one other during the evening (see map below). We look forward to seeing what happens next! Will they stick together in the coming days, weeks and months?! To be continued!
It was a day that wound up raising our spirits, as we had the impression that we were back to square one when the first tag stopped transmitting.
November 24, 2015: Mission Accomplished!
Mission accomplished! Here is the message that Michel sent me from the Bleuvet on Sunday, a few minutes after placing the sixth and final tag. As initially planned for the project, six individuals – all, based on their size, morphology, behaviour and the make-up of their group, presumably males – have been fitted with satellite tags that should allow us to track them in their migration. The first three tags, which had been deployed in early November, have unfortunately already stopped transmitting signals. Now we’re counting on these three “informants” to help us plot the course of belugas.
Click on the map to track the movements of the last three tagged belugas. Each color corresponds to the movements of an animal;
the last position of the day is marked with a circle; the last received position is marked with a star.
It is already almost the end of November. We expect an imminent departure of the belugas toward their wintering grounds farther east. Our fingers are crossed. Hopefully the tags stick!
Update – November 26, 2015: Moving to Phase II
The winds are howling over the St. Lawrence Estuary today. With gusts from the southwest reaching 30 knots (multiply by 2 – or 1,852 to be exact – to convert to km/h), we are quite happy to be dry and on land, but still a bit sad to have stowed the Bleuvet for the winter. What about our belugas?
We are entering into the second phase of the Belugas on the Move project. The last few weeks have been spent installing satellite tags, an exercise that proved to be more difficult than we had imagined. In fact, we should point out that it took us nearly a month before we located any males. Several October days were spent patrolling the Estuary, zigzagging around while avoiding overly windy areas. We encountered dozens of beluga herds, but almost all of them were herds of females with young. Undoubtedly, sexual segregation, i.e. the separation of males and females observed throughout the summer, continues into the fall. It was only in early November that we got lucky. Of the six tags deployed in November, three are still in service. Thanks to these three “informants”, we hope to track the belugas’ course.
Where do they go and what do they do when they leave their summer grounds? Now that the tags have been deployed and the boat is out of the water for winter, the wait begins. We are waiting for the belugas to start moving downstream to begin our aerial surveys. The three belugas tagged in early November have not moved much (see map dated 18 November). They remained between Tadoussac, Les Bergeronnes and Trois-Pistoles, sectors that they frequent in the summer. Our three new “spies” are beginning to “set their sights” to the east (watch for future map updates). Since Monday, they have already made a few forays downstream of Île Bicquette and this afternoon they were off of Sainte-Luce-sur-Mer!
Preparations for the aerial surveys have begun. Our pilot Mr. Jean Gosselin and his aircraft, a PARTENAVIA Observer GOSJ, are waiting for our call. Our colleague Jean-François Gosselin from the Maurice Lamontagne Institute (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) will be our flight plan designer. Jean-François was the one who led the most recent aerial survey campaigns for identifying and counting St. Lawrence belugas.
Now we’re just waiting for a signal from the belugas. Staring at the sea off the shores of Les Bergeronnes and the waves that keep getting bigger and bigger, I can’t help but think that winter must be a difficult season for belugas.
To be continued…
Update – December 1, 2015: Already Back in Tadoussac!
After a brief foray downstream of Île Bicquette, our three spies returned to the Les Bergeronnes – Tadoussac sector. The time for the great departure appears to have not yet arrived.
Since the start of monitoring of DLS04 (yellow lines on the map below), his daily movements seem to follow long straight lines. These movements contrast with the zigzags of DLS05 and DLS06. In fact, each leg of a journey connects the positions transmitted by the satellite. For DLS04, we received fewer and less accurate positions. This seems to be due to the location of the tag. DLS04’s tag was placed slightly lower on the animal’s flank.Click on the map to track the movements of the last three tagged belugas. Each color corresponds to the movements of an animal; the last position of the day is marked with a circle; the last received position is marked with a star.
Update – December 3, 2015: Enthusiasm Gives Way to Disappointment
Bad news from Tadoussac. This week, two out of the three tags that were supposed to help us track belugas either fell off or stopped working. Our first hypothesis is that the tags stopped transmitting data because they fell off. However, the four tags that performed well and that are no longer transmitting lasted 10, 13, 12 and 10 days, respectively. We are considering the possibility that these very similar durations correspond to a mechanical or electronic issue. These results will be carefully examined over the next few months.
In the meantime, we’re crossing our fingers that the third “spy” will provide readings longer than the others!
Click on the map to track the movements of the last three tagged belugas. Each color corresponds to the movements of an animal; the last position of the day is marked with a circle; the last received position is marked with a red star.
This time, the tag was placed higher on the flank, just behind the dorsal crest.
December 2 at 6:18 pm: that’s the time of the last transmission! DLS04’s tag is no longer sending data. As in the case of the first transmission interruptions, we allow ourselves 48 hours before drawing any conclusions of misfortune, but the fate of our last tag is no longer in doubt: we’ve lost track of our belugas.
Still this weekend, several belugas were spotted at the mouth of the Saguenay from our offices at the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre in Tadoussac. But none of them will “alert” us when they’re about to depart eastward toward the Gulf. In the coming weeks, we will review our strategy for collecting new information that we need in order to better understand the winter habits of belugas. We have several hours reserved for aerial surveys that we plan to conduct to track the belugas’ course. These flight times will have to be used as carefully as possible to locate the animals. The investigation will resume in January.
To be continued!
- Robert Michaud at Boréale 138 with Michel Plourde, October 19, 2015 : Où vont les bélugas l’hiver?
- Où les bélugas passent-ils l’hiver? Radio-Canada, October 22, 2015
- Robert Michaud at Bon pied, bonne heure, October 22, 2015 (6:50)
- Robert Michaud at L’heure de pointe with Jean-Pierre Girard, October 23, 2015 (17:39 )
- Belugas on the Move, WWF Canada, October 24, 2015
- Robert Michaud at Le monde aujourd’hui, November 4, 2015 (16:15)
- Tagging endangered belugas to find winter habitat ( Radio Canada International, Lynn Desjardins, November 8, 2015)
- Habitudes hivernales des bélugas : début difficile (Radio-Canada, November 20, 2015)
- Expédition sans précédent dans le Saint-Laurent (Journal de Montréal, Stéphanie Gendron, November 28, 2015)
- Les scientifiques perdent la trace de six bélugas (Radio-Canada, December 11, 2015)
- Robert Michaud du GREMM énonce les hypothèses qui expliqueraient pourquoi le projet d’émetteurs satellites n’a pas été aussi concluant qu’on l’espérait et les futures étapes à venir. Écoutez l’entrevue de ce matin à l’émission Bon pied, bonne heure à ICI Radio-Canada.