That’s what Stephen Petersen, head of conservation and research for Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo, and his wife, biologist Meg Hainstock, are looking for. Only when the whales turn upside down can the researchers determine their sex, which they need as they study the animals’ social structure and behavior.
For example, why do certain whales of a similar age and sex consistently gather at certain times or locations? What function do Hudson Bay’s estuaries serve for these animals? Do beluga whales have a matriarchal social structure? Do certain whale groups’ low numbers have a long-term effect on the rest of the population, such as the case with the population in Alaska’s Cook Inlet, which is struggling as compared to the healthy Hudson Bay population?
“As far as I know, there’s no other investigation of beluga from under the water on this scale,” Petersen said. “A lot of the stuff that’s been done before is from observers on top of the water. It doesn’t really give us a good sense — belugas don’t spend a lot of time on top of the water.”
Explore.org and Polar Bears International have used similar crowdsourcing technology to monitor polar bears’ annual migration in Hudson Bay. Researchers hope years of viewers taking snapshots will provide them with images that can help assess the bears’ health and reproductive rates.
One of the most well-known projects is by the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif., whose software has been downloaded by millions of users and allows researchers to use the data-processing power of those computers in the institute’s search for alien life in space.
For the beluga whale project, Petersen said viewers are instructed on how to identify males from females, and are then asked to take snapshots when the whales flip over and their sex is in view of the camera. The photographs are tagged male or female and uploaded to a database that will help identify individual whales and their locations.
The researchers hope that after this season ends in August, they will have a catalog of individual whales that can be tracked in subsequent years, along with the locations where different groups are gathering to find if any patterns emerge.
Understanding the beluga whales is important because their ecosystem soon may be altered with the effects of climate change, Gasbara said. Less Arctic ice could bring threats to the beluga in the form of killer whales and increased boat traffic and pollution, he said.
“I think because we’re right at the beginning of this, any information that we get on social structure is going to be informative for other locations,” Petersen said.
Back on the surface in Canada’s Hudson Bay, ghostlike humps emerge as more whales are drawn to Shepherd’s three-metre inflatable boat. She pilots the vessel slowly around the estuary for four hours a day over the short northern summer, sometimes narrating her observations to web viewers.
“It’s important to know that we ultimately are visitors and we are in their territory,” Shepherd said. “Them approaching the boat, following the boat — it’s all their doing. We don’t need to run up to them and ride along.”
Occasionally, one of the whales will slap the water with its tail and soak her.
“Sometimes I feel like they’ve adopted me into their pod,” Shephard said.