With the Belugas… Under Water

  • Pose d'une balise sur le dos d'un beluga.
    Dans le feu de l’action, l’assistante de recherche Sophie Bédard photographie la pose d’une balise sur le dos d’un béluga. / In the midst of the action, the research assistant Sophie Bédard photographs a tag being placed on the back of a beluga. © GREMM
    12 / 08 / 2019 Par Marie-Ève Muller

    On the morning of July 26, the Bleuvet sets sail from the port of Tadoussac to study belugas. With 6 people on board, the cabin is a bit crowded. Researcher Valeria Vergara of Ocean Wise (British Columbia) travelled across the continent with research assistant Marie-Ana Mikus to study communication in St. Lawrence belugas. Véronique Lesage of Fisheries and Oceans Canada is also on board to study the impact of navigation noise on belugas. Lastly, captain Michel Moisan as well as Sophie Bédard and Noémie Roy from the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals(GREMM) round out the group.

    Three research projects are running in parallel today. Valeria Vergara is testing the hypothesis that each beluga has a unique acoustic signature. If confirmed, each individual could be recognized by its contact call or its “name”. To test her theory, the researcher records the calls of St. Lawrence belugas and then analyzes them. In parallel, Véronique Lesage tries to better understand the effects of navigation noise on belugas’ diving, communication and feeding behaviour. Additionally, whenever she has the chance, Sophie Bédard photograph belugas to contribute to GREMM’s photo-identification project.

    The mission for the day is to tag a beluga. As long as the tag remains attached to the animal, it will record a host of information on the beluga’s diving behaviour, the sounds it emits as well as the noises present in its environment. These underwater data will be added to those collected at the surface by researchers throughout the day.

    Out toward Île Rouge, we find a herd of belugas to study. Because we hold a research permit, we are authorized to approach them. At about 9:10 am, a beluga swims toward us. It passes under the boat a few times, then swims away. Standing on the deck, Michel Moisan stretches out a long pole in an attempt to place the tag on the beluga’s back. A few minutes later, the beluga approaches again. Score! The tag is in place.

    Michel Moisan pose une balise sur le dos d'un beluga.

    The tag sticks to the beluga’s back thanks to four suction cups. © GREMM

    Now the observation phase begins. The boat moves away until it is at least 400 m from the beluga and everyone gets to work. Michel Moisan takes the helm as data collection gets underway for both research projects.

    At the bow, Valeria Vergara and Marie-Ana Mikus observe the beluga’s movements relative to the rest of its group. Whenever the individual is alone, the researchers note the time. When they listen to the sounds recorded by the tag, they will know that if a contact call was heard at any of the recorded times, it was probably made by the tagged individual.

    Béluga seul avec une balise

    If this beluga gives a contact call while alone, Valeria Vergara and Marie-Ane Mikus will be able to use it for their analysis. © GREMM

    At the stern, Véronique Lesage observes the beluga’s dynamism as well as its surface behaviour. Additionally, among other things, she notes the presence of boats in the area, their type, and their direction and distance with respect to the beluga and the rest of its group.

    Meanwhile, posted on the roof, Sophie Bédard carries out detailed surveys of the herd. Belugas are often seen in large herds that are split into smaller sub-groups. Every half hour, Sophie notes whether any new individuals have joined or left the herd, the radius of the herd and the direction of its movements. These data will make it possible to compare the behaviour of the tagged beluga with that of the herd in general.

    The tag is equipped with a transmitter and our boat, an antenna and a receiver. Whenever the antenna is pointed in any given direction, the frequency and intensity of the beeps indicate whether or not the tag is in that direction.

    At 11:45, the sound signals become increasingly sporadic. Perhaps the tag fell off? A tag positioned lower down on a beluga’s back will emit weaker and less frequent signals due to the fact that when the beluga surfaces, the antenna rises less out of the water and emerges for a shorter duration.

    A few minutes later, we spot our beluga swimming with three or four other individuals. The tag has indeed slipped. Did the beluga graze the sea floor or did another beluga brush up against the tag? In any case, it is still holding.

    Béluga avec une balise accompagné d'un béluga gris.

    The beluga’s companions were often grey in colour, an indication of their young age. © GREMM

    At 12:36, the acoustic signal becomes very frequent. “Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep! The tag has fallen off. We find it floating on the water surface and recover the valuable data it contains.

    The work day is over and forecasts for strong winds encourage us to quickly return to port. Nevertheless, on our way back, we make a few exciting observations. A minke whale is feeding a few hundred metres from the boat. Then, a group of razorbills and a flock of cormorants fly over our heads. Lastly, a gannet is seen hovering near the Prince Shoal lighthouse.

    To learn more

    Putting a Face to a Call: Identifying Belugas Acoustically

    Listening in Order to See: Techniques Used in Marine Acoustics

    Recently identified belugas

    Amalena – adopted by Tadoussac Elderhostel

    Delphi – entrusted to the Premier of Quebec

    Hector – adopted by the Cowboys Fringants and their fans

    John A. Macdonald – adopted by The Fairmont Hotel Macdonald

    Marjo – adopted by La Grande Séduction: 10th medical congress on emergency medicine in regional communities, organized by the Haute-Côte-Nord-Manicouagan CSSS

    Pacalou– adopted by Pascale Cauchi

    Pascolio – adopted by Tadoussac business owners

    Polynix – collective adoption

    Pure Laine – adopted by Cynthia Fish

    Yogi – adopted by Bell Canada