Researchers are using drones and other technologies to study beluga whales in the Northwest Territories without disturbing the hunting and food supply of people in the local community. 

The study — underway in Paulatuk, N.W.T. a small community on the Arctic coast — combines technologies in new ways to collect data about the whales, avoiding methods like tagging and aerial surveys which hunters in the predominantly Inuvialuit community consider disruptive. Beluga are an important part of the local diet. 

Researchers are using drones, local observation and hydrophones, or underwater listening devices. 

Those techniques have never been used together to study Arctic marine mammals, according to project leaders.

"We realized that if you pair hydrophones with local observation and drones, you might together be able to come up with an innovative picture of what's going on," said Louie Porta of Oceans North Canada. "Can you get abundance estimates without aerial survey and without tagging? That is what we are trying to do."

Oceans North Canada, the project's principal funder, promotes science and community-based conservation in the Canadian Arctic. Representatives worked with the community to design the research, and are collaborating on it with the Paulatuk Hunters and Trappers Committee and the Fisheries Joint Management Committee.

Research to match community values

As the ice melts every summer, Darnley Bay, located north of Paulatuk, transforms into a feeding ground for beluga whales and many other marine species. A section of the bay is slated to become part of the proposed Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam Marine Protected Area — which includes habitat for Arctic char, polar bears and beluga whales — later this year. 

Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam Marine Protected Area

The proposed Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam Marine Protected Area, outlined in blue, includes a portion of Darnley Bay, just west of Paulatuk. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

"Everybody helps out each other when they are hunting whales," said Joe Ruben Jr., a local hunter and who also helps monitor the whales. "Making sure everybody gets a piece of the muktuk [whale blubber] in the community."

There is a lot to learn about the beluga: their numbers, what they eat and what they do. While there have been other beluga studies, few have focused on their behaviour, particularly on how they use Darnley Bay and the local terrain.

Porta says the research was tailored so that it "matched the values of the community." 

Researchers combined three ways of collecting data — drones, hydrophones and local observation — that according to "have never been put together before" to study Arctic marine mammals.

For the last three summers, local monitors have deployed hydrophones in two areas of Darnley Bay to capture beluga calls. They also observed and filmed the beluga from shore, hoping to match their calls with specific behaviours.  

hydrophone

Researchers work to drop a hydrophone in Darnley Bay, hoping to match a beluga's calls, captured on the underwater listening device, with its movements. (Pew Charitable Trusts)

This year, to get an even better look, monitors flew drones over the pods.

It was "just like a game you are watching on the iPad," said Ruben, who operated one of the drones. 

Ruben's team only had one flight due to high winds, and didn't see any whales. The other team, though, succeeded in filming a pod from high in the sky.

"People are really happy we are doing this work," he said.

Once the research is completed, Oceans North Canada will produce a final report, while the Paulatuk Hunters and Trappers Committee will own and house the data.

The data is meant to help manage the new marine protected area, which will be officially designated later this year.