The Beluga Scouting

From the Interspecies Newsletter
©1999, Jim Nollman

To read an illustrated report about the deep connection between beluga whales, ancient petroglyphs, and modern Russia, click The beluga Spiral. With a slower modem, it may take a moment to download. It's worth it.

Off to Russian Arctic seeking beluga whales. The expedition comprised individuals and organizations representing Estonia, Finland, Canada, as well as the USA and Russia; including a communication artist, a film crew, archeologists, activists, and an eco-tourism promoter. Midway through the trip, the legal protection of this vast salt water and forest ecosystem emerged as a potential result of our ongoing presence in the area.If habitat protection comes to pass, it signifies a major victory for the belugas, who are endangered almost everywhere else on Earth.
Take a look at a map. The White Sea lies mostly inside the Russian republic of Karelia, just east of Finland. The area is about the same shape as Puget Sound in Washington, although quite a bit larger. It is one of the few bodies of tidal water in the world completely enclosed by a single country.
A diverse group traveled to Russia’s White Sea in July 1999 to make initial contact with the area’s beluga whales
We were there on a scouting mission. While the producr and director searched out locations for a whale film, members of the Karelian Research Institute and the Finland Prehistoric Society searched for new petrolgyph sites. I represented IC, invited to observe the local belugas as a first stage to producing a future communication project in Northern Russia. IC’s Finnish rep, Rauno Lauhakangas, was onboard to test the local will to adopt whalewatching as an economic alternative to whale hunting.
The story of this summer’s exhibition really starts with Scandinavia’s growing admiration for 6000 year old Finno-Ugrian petroglyphs, carved in bedrock throughout the Karelian Republic. Some of the centers for this art, like the Zalavruga site we visited at the mouth of the Vyg River, contain literally thousands of rock carvings, with some showing scenes as detailed as a Breughel painting. One depicts a boat with twenty passengers, some of whom are young men in the process of being initiated into manhood. Another image shows a dynamic scene of hunters on skis stepping uphill, then sliding down, and finally shooting a moose with a spear. Nearby is the famous petroglyph of a woman shaman communicating with beluga whales even as she births a whale. On Zaitsky island is a remarkable site, almost unknown in the West, comprising the largest labyrinth in the world. On nearby Kouseva island, there are tombs marked by boulders stacked into free-standing human forms, and closely resembling the sculptural Inukshuks constructed by the ancient Dorset culture in Arctic Canada. Were the two societies in contact? Or perhaps it was one culture? No one can say, either way.
The Soviets barred foreigners from northern Karelia for 75 years. The north/south channel that connects the White Sea to the Arctic Ocean was the center of the Soviet’s nuclear fleet. Most of these ships and submarines are now rusting at anchor. The Russians who have inherited the mess are currently dumping nuclear material offshore, causing the ocean and coast of Murmansk to become the most dangerously polluted place on earth.
It wasn’t only the military installations that turned the area off-limits. The White Sea was a major center of the Gulag Archipelago. On Solevetski Island where the largest group of White Sea belugas reside in summer, a local archeologist has recently set up a thriving business that buses mostly Russians tourists to a beautiful but deteriorating fifteenth century monastery that Stalin converted into his first and most infamous concentration camp.
We took the tour, stopping at an ancient church on the top of a steep hill where, we were told, executioners iced down the steep stairs in winter, weighted the prisoners with rocks, then pushed them down the stairs. I suspected some of the grim-faced tourists peering down the stairs had lost loved ones to some long forgotten purge. Their pilgrimage to Russia’s far north, visiting a mound where hundreds of thousands of political prisoners were tossed for burial, remains their only hope—a gamble at best—of connecting to the place relatives may conceivably be buried.
Ironically, the Soviet paranoia that instigated the forced deportation of native Karelians, has also assured that the White Sea belugas are among the few populations of this species still thriving in the wild. Most everywhere else in the world, including Arctic Canada and Alaska, belugas are relentlessly hunted by native people.
The White Sea’s world-class rock art, wilderness, and historical monuments are just now opening up to the West. As the Karelians learn to deal more firmly with the take-the-money-and-run policies of Moscow, local politicians and entrepreneurs are looking at this natural and historic bounty as a viable path to autonomous development.
Until we arrived this summer, eco-tourism was hardly understood by Karelian leaders. They viewed it in terms of wealthy sportsmen getting flown into remote lakes to fish and hunt moose. Neither the politicians nor the tour operators we met had ever heard of the concept of whalewatching. The presentation Rauno and I gave to the Karelian foreign minister, Andrei Spiridonov, focused on a 59% annual increase in worldwide whalewatching since 1990.
The minister agreed that Karelia’s unique assets overwhelmingly favor eco-tourism. More importantly, he also agreed that there could be no secure whalewatching economy until the belugas, themselves, were granted protection under Russian law. His assurance to pursue this path made the trip feel successful before we even saw a single whale.

The whale biz

Because human beings control the fate of wild animals everywhere on the planet, whalewatching potentially serves the cause of preservation by educating people about the beauty and intellect of whales. What we are willing to pay money to watch, we are likely to take a stand to protect. It does work that way sometimes.
Other times, too many people needing to see the whales, needing to make money from the whales, can actually cause them harm. Because both harm and preservation exist, sometimes in the same place at the same time, the modern phenomenon of whalewatching may be best understood as the midpoint of a line which shows whaling on one end and leaving the whales alone (like most of us treat songbirds) on the other end.
The metaphor of the line sometimes causes IC to promote whalewatching, and other times to condemn it. On San Juan Island where IC is based, we have gained few friends in the tourist trade by speaking out against the local orca watching trade, which is largely unregulated and often seems harmful. On any day between June and September, 50 or more loud, diesel-spewing boats can be seen encircling the local whales. Common sense suggests that impeding the whale’s movements and blocking their ability to communicate, has to affect the orcas general health.
A recent report verifies that the Puget Sound population of orcas has dwindled by 15% over the past five years. The official cause is PCB contamination known to disrupt any mammal’s reproductive system. The whales’ main diet of coho and king salmon are nearly extinct. Having to contend with tour boats all day long is, if nothing else, a burdensome extenuating factor.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Rauno founded the Internet’s whalewatching web on the premise that wherever whalewatching flourishes, whaling must inevitably wither. This axiom is currently manifesting in Iceland where Keiko’s return has initiated enough new tourism to effectively put an end to both whaling and the capture of orcas for the oceanarium trade. In Japan, IC’s sister organization, ICERC, has long served as that country’s major proponent of whalewatching. Their promotions, some accomplished with IC’s active participation, have notably impacted coastal whaling in several locations around the country.
In Karelia, a place with few economic prospects, a robust whalewatching economy would emphatically abrogate a proposal now on the table to permit the hunting of belugas, either commercially or by sportsmen. If the latter sounds horrifically misguided, the idea was actually borrowed from the Canadian government which administered such a program until the belugas were designated an endangered or threatened species throughout North America.
A more immediate threat to the White Sea belugas is posed by the oceanarium trade, currently offering substantial sums of money for a young, healthy whale. The first White Sea beluga documented in harms way since the fall of the czars was caught in the summer of 1998, and shipped to a Canadian oceanarium in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Ironically, the oceanarium’s usual source, Churchill in Hudson Bay, no longer permits the capture of its whales because the local economy is thriving from southern Canadians come north to watch the belugas in the wild.


Today, there are only a few places people can travel within Europe to view cetaceans. The Canary Islands are home to herds of pilot whales which attract nearly a million visitors a year. IC’s Spanish contact, Diego Ascensio has recently established orca watching on the Mediterranean coast east of Barcelona. Diego is a dedicated activist who writes of fighting fishermen who shoot orcas for eating too many fish.
Our contact in the Azores, Portuguese senator, Ruben Rodrigues, runs a whalewatching company in one of the few places in the world people can view sperm whales with consistency. In Norway, where whaling for fins and minkes still reigns, the economy of the Lofoten Islands is based on both orca watching and fishing. The growth of the former is sometimes cited as the only reason the Lofoten orcas haven’t yet met the same fate as those in Spain.
Western Europe wasn’t always so deplete of cetaceans. Gray Whales once migrated in vast numbers along the Atlantic coast from Spain to Karelia. They became extinct from overhunting by 1600. Right whales traveled close to shore in the Bay of Biscay, but were extinct from overhunting by 1700. Bottlenose whales, essentially a 35 foot long dolphin species, were once common along the coast of Greast Britain, but became extinct, also from overhunting, by 1850.
Belugas favor rivers to birth their young and feed on salmon and herring. There is historical evidence that they once prospered, not only in Karelia, but in the Rhine, the Thames, the Elbe, the Oder, and possibly the Neva and the Seine.

21 questions

The Moscow-based Shirshov Institute has established a beluga research center on Solevetski Island, just a mile downhill from Stalin’s infamous stairs. The biologists there have erected a tall log tower at the tip of a skinny, boulder-strewn glacial esker that all but disappears at high tide. This vantage offers a stunning view of the sixty belugas who congregate at the esker’s drop-off to exploit a tidal upwelling that attracts schools of herring.
The belugas are clearly shy around human beings. They visit the feeding area in small groups of 5 to 15 animals, always led by an advance scout who signals the rest of the pod if the fish are present and the humans aren’t acting too offensively
The director of the Russian beluga study is Vsevelod Bel’kovich, a dapper, soft-spoken man in his 60’s who has been studying belugas for over 30 years. In the 1960’s he made the first Russian translation of a John Lilly book despite the disapproval of his American colleagues. Bel’kovich laughed to conclude, "and you Americans thought that only the Soviet Union censored books!"
Bel’kovich tells us that the belugas definitely have a language. He first knew it, for certain, while witnessing a group of females surround a whale giving birth. They offered her "vocal encouragement". And when the healthy baby finally emerged, the group expressed joy to one another. Then they all turned to the new mother to offer congratulations.
Bel’kovich confides to me that he has no idea how to explore the language of this highly evolved cetacean. So he remains content to describe population dynamics and simple behavior, but hopes that one of his students will eventually figure out how to "crack the code." He agrees with me that music is an apt tool for exploring the potential for communication.
Russian biologists and psychologists have always been more open-minded to extrasensory phenomena than their Western counterparts. Bel’kovich, the dean of Russian whale studies, is no exception. He has recently begun to work with a police psychic.who has met the beluga whales, or to be more precise, one of the whale scouts.
When the meeting between scout and psychic concluded, the latter confided to Bel’kovich that the belugas were disinterested in humans because they had not yet met anyone who could teach them about life or wisdom. But starting next summer, the whales have agreed to answer 21 questions that the research team poses through the psychic.
Two of Bel’kovich’s project assistants are developing a more hi-tech approach to interaction. They have placed a video monitor and camera in a waterproof housing, then hung it near the herring-feeding area. The whale’s have stopped to admire their own onscreen image. On two occasions, individuals studied their own faces, then spoke the same unique call not documented before or since. According to the project assistant, a cheerful man named Valodya, the whales have also enjoyed watching cartoons onscreen. It made me wonder how they might relate to the film character who resembles them most: Casper the Friendly Ghost.


In the spirit of future relations, I quietly played a melodic rhythm on a floating drum while 5 to 10 belugas dove for herring less than 100 meters away. Their response was non-committal, neither curious nor evasive. Their aloofness was not unexpected. Past experience has taught me it can take weeks or even months to establish a trusting relationship with cetaceans.
Later in the week, scouting the Solevetski coast by helicopter, we observed several pods of whales swimming near shore just a few miles from the Bel’kovich camp. From this vantage, it was easy to strategize a musical communication study with the local belugas. We would set up camp a mile south of the Russian research group. We would work from an anchored inflatable boat, using an underwater sound system. Three or four people would sit in the boat listening and interacting several hours a day for at least two weeks, and hopefully three.
Exploring communication with belugas would necessitate four fields of expertise:
1. underwater recording,
2. MIDI sampling and programming
3. A gifted psychic
4. a musician experienced in developing an aesthetic, playful, and intellectual relationship between species.
A camp manager and a Russian translator would bring our group to six people.