A battle of cetaceans plays out beneath the Arctic sea ice where orcas pursue belugas. Orcas, known as killer whales, are ferocious predators, but the flukes on their backs can sometimes get in the way. While the orb-like beluga can slip beneath the sea ice and hide out in narrow air holes, orcas run the risk of getting stuck, and so the sea ice can save the day for belugas. Unfortunately, it’s disappearing.
“The Arctic is now warming nearly four times as fast as the rest of the planet, causing its sea ice to melt,” said Kieran McIver, Beluga Boat Captain and Manager of Churchill Field Operations for Polar Bears International (PBI), to IFLScience. “Sea ice is crucial for polar bears as well as other species like beluga whales, seals and humans.”
For this reason, each year, July 15 marks Arctic Sea Ice Day. This aims to draw attention to the rapidly melting Arctic ecosystem, why it matters, and how we can help slow this trend. It’s also marked by the launch of PBI’s live Beluga Cam in partnership with explore.org, capturing the return of these playful whales to the Churchill River estuary off Hudson Bay.
We caught up with McIver to find out more about PBI’s work, Arctic Sea Ice Day, and why belugas are in trouble if the trends we’re seeing continue.
What do you do?
I am Manager of Churchill Field Operations for Polar Bears International (PBI), a job that comes with many hats. This includes taking on the role of Beluga Boat captain during the beluga migration, when we’re operating our Beluga Cams in Churchill in partnership with explore.org.
Churchill, Canada, is a remote community on Hudson Bay. It’s known for its polar bears and is one of our main bases for outreach and programs. My job involves a lot of field work, and change is a constant. I drive a Tundra Buggy during polar bear season and captain the Beluga Boat during beluga season. I also update cameras, fix broken items, and handle maintenance issues in our two buildings, one of which is the PBI House interpretive center.
During beluga season, I start the day by checking the weather over morning coffee. The water in Hudson Bay is quite cold, even in summer, and we can get high winds and rough waves, so I need to make sure it’s safe to launch. If conditions look good, I run through a checklist of safety precautions and gather our gear – hip waders, life jackets, GPS devices, iPads for engaging with viewers… It’s a long list and the prep usually takes over an hour.
We head out at high tide, either in the morning or in the afternoon, depending on the day. I launch the boat from the banks of the Churchill River and then gauge the plan for the day based on weather conditions and whale whereabouts. The waters in the Churchill River are muddy and murky, so we try to quickly exit the river to Hudson Bay, where the water is clearer. En route, there’s an area near the mouth of the river where we tend to see polar bears swimming or basking on the shoreline, and we try to get them on the cams as well.
Once on the bay, we look for whales. The best way to find them is to look for a big flock of birds: when you see a lot of birds, you’ll see a lot of belugas — all of them feeding on massive schools of capelin.
The Beluga Cams are set up so we can engage directly with viewers in real-time. We’ve found that our viewers like learning not only about belugas, but about the history of the area and other wildlife, so we like to take special guests out, from beluga experts to people who study caribou or know about Churchill’s history. As we talk on the mic, viewers can post questions, which we see on our iPad and respond to during the live chats. It’s a unique system. There aren’t a lot of live cameras where you can speak with scientists in real-time and engage with them.
I spend about four hours on the water every day, depending on the tides and weather — and coming back to shore is just as much of a production as going out. We operate the Beluga Boat in saltwater and we put our truck in saltwater to launch. So, every day when we return, we wash the truck down to get the saltwater off. We also have to charge our mic packs, batteries, and so on, and lock up all our technology. It’s not as simple as going out on the bay and floating around for a few hours!
After we’ve parked and washed, the beluga aspect is over but other duties remain, so I look at my to-do list for the rest of the day. This is my seventh beluga season and I’ve learned so much. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on the water observing belugas and talking with scientists. It’s been amazing to soak it all in. I feel incredibly lucky that this is my job.
For people who aren’t familiar with belugas, what are these animals like?
Belugas are some of the smallest, chattiest whales in the world – they’re called canaries of the sea for good reason! Their iconic melon heads and ability to move their necks all around make them seem extra silly and inquisitive, and their constant singing is absolutely delightful. Belugas are social animals who love to explore their surroundings, even if that means getting themselves and their babies close to a Beluga Whale Cam!
Why is sea ice so important with regard to their interactions with orcas?
Unlike many other whales, belugas lack a dorsal fin. This adaptation allows them to live and feed in areas with Arctic sea ice. With no back fin sticking out, the relatively slow-moving beluga can use the sea ice to hide from the fast orca for two main reasons.
First, because belugas have smooth backs, they can swim close to the sea ice and find breathing holes without getting blocked in by ice chunks. Their predator, the orca whale, does have a dorsal fin, which means orcas can't easily make it to the surface to breathe when there is ice (they risk getting their back appendage caught up in chunky sea ice). Second, because belugas lack a dorsal fin, they're able to retain heat. In contrast, an orca swimming in icy Arctic waters might lose too much body heat through its back fin and not be able to regulate its body temperature.
Why else do belugas rely on sea ice?
Belugas are part of the food chain that is supported by Arctic sea ice. Sea ice is to the Arctic what soil is to a forest: The ice supports the growth of algae, which feed microorganisms, which feed fish, which feed seals and belugas, which feed polar bears. Belugas rely on this ocean garden for food, just like the many other creatures that have evolved to depend on the sea ice.
How can people get involved with helping the cause this year?
To move the world toward action on climate change and save Arctic sea ice for polar bears we can start by talking about it. If no one is talking about it, we can’t build support for meaningful action. So please, have some conversations about what matters to you!
- Focus on what brings you together, start with a shared value. This is one place where feelings matter more than facts.
- Actively listen in the conversation, which includes asking questions and talking about concerns. Mutual respect helps maintain dialogue.
- Don’t pretend to have all the answers. You don’t need to understand complex climate models or all the proposed solutions. The point is simply to talk about the issue and share concerns instead of avoiding them.
By making climate change an everyday topic, you’ll help normalize caring for the environment and the need to change systems—bringing your friends, family, and community into the conversation. Please check out our Arctic Sea Ice Day toolkit, Climate Conversations webcast, and website for more tools and information.
What’s next for your research?
The Beluga Bits research project is in its next phase, meaning you could get involved in beluga research! You can help us examine underwater photos of wild beluga whales to identify the age, sex, and group size. We also need keen eyes to look for identifying marks to recognize beluga that return to this location year after year.
For more information about polar bear research, check out the Polar Bears International website.