Beluga Whales are beautiful, yet toxic?

Written by Uri Golman

Since I was a child I have always been preoccupied with everything wild. I used to sit in school and daydream for hours about future adventures in the north and about the wildlife that I would see. But nothing had prepared me for the first meeting with the Beluga Whales.

The weather was grey, as we set out from the small cay at Churchill harbor. A few rays of sun came through and a cold wind was blowing from the North. I didn’t really have time to see the beauty as I was going through a final check of my underwater camera gear. As I got into the water I could feel the 2°C cold water entering the 14mm wetsuit but I knew I just had to wait it out. The water was filled with algae that was in full bloom and the visibility was low. Within a short time white shadows emerged out of nowhere and the water was filled with chirping sounds, much like you would hear in a park in springtime. Then things became quiet and suddenly without me having noticed anything a small pod of 4-5 meter long white Beluga Whales came scurrying past. The sounds came back and the water was filled with the bird chirps as a pod of maybe 50-100 whales made their way past me. I was mesmerized. Some of the whales came really close, within touching distance, and turned over to get a better look. I mean I would have been happy just to see one of them up close but that many and at that close a distance was beyond belief.

Unfortunately the whales I saw make up a very large part of the entire Beluga whale population. Due to many factors like pollution and over hunting these whales have moved from vulnerable to near threatened on the IUCN Red List and things are not looking bright. Beluga whales are at the top of the food chain and their blubber and internal organs carry high amounts of Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs as they are called. Especially PCB and DDT are found in high concentrations in Belugas together with large concentrations of heavy metals. All of these pollutants possess a severe risk for anybody eating Beluga and levels of up to 800ppm of PCB has been measured in the blubber of the Belugas of Canada’s St. Lawrence River where some whale populations are considered to be so toxic that they are treated as toxic waste.

This is a fact that is also threatening the ancient hunting culture of the Arctic. Belugas have always been hunted in small numbers and have been a good source of protein and Omega 3 fatty acids. The blubber and skin together called Muktuk is still a delicacy in Inuit communities but unfortunately this is also where most toxins are to be found. POPs can cause cancer and many other malign diseases in humans and thus the Beluga is loosing it value as prey. A very sad way to put a stop to over hunting, but nonetheless a good picture of the reality of the issue.

So how does the future look for the Beluga and for the Inuit’s? Well, as for the whales it is very difficult to say. Some pods are growing and some are diminishing. The most severely polluted groups in St. Lawrence River might have very big problems as POPs also affect the reproductive possibilities of whales as well as humans. But as for the less polluted groups there is hope. In the Arctic communities hunting patterns might have to change and a different economy must take its place. Maybe tourism, as it is done in Churchill on the Hudson Bay could be a part of the solution. Here a ban on hunting has been made and tour boats are leaving every day during the summer. This in turn brings a good economy to the city. Research has shown that the whale numbers have grown in this region and it is now one of the few places on earth where you can actually get close to a Beluga.

For me getting so close to a Beluga had been quite an experience and back in the boat with a full CF-card in my camera I was speechless. I wanted to say that I was happy and that it had been a great experience. My mind was filled with the images of this natural beauty and I just couldn’t believe what I had seen. I was clearly daydreaming again. Fortunately for me I was able to continue this dream for the next few days and went diving with the Belugas again. Now I just hope that the whales will still be there for future visitors. For without these angels of the Arctic Ocean the world will surly be a lesser place.

About Uri Golman

Based in Como (Italy) Uri Golman is an award winning nature- and wildlife photographer specialized in the arctic environment. An environmentalist and adventurer by heart, he has traveled the far north on several expeditions with the ultimate goal to communicate local conservation. iLCP Photographer Uri Golman is currently working on a conservation project in the Arctic called The Wild North Project. The aim of this project is to create local knowledge sharing on environmental issues to communities in the far north in places where news from other Arctic regions seldom arrive. The following text is Uri’s own account from his last trip to Hudson Bay, working with the Beluga Whales.