Aerial surveys show that the presence of less ice at the mouth of the Mackenzie River seems to attract more beluga whales. 

These and other findings will be presented this week at the Inuvik Beluga Summit, which brings together Inuvialuit harvesters and scientific experts from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Health Canada and other research institutions.

Claire Hornby

Hornby takes aerial photos of ice in the Mackenzie Delta as part of her beluga whale research. (Submitted by Claire Hornby)

"They [belugas] did prefer open water environments when we compared it to heavy ice conditions," said Claire Hornby, a researcher with the two-year study. "They tend to be in the loose ice pack rather than in the heavy."

Researchers did two aerial surveys during June breakup in 2012 and 2013. The findings were published in the journal Polar Biology in January.

The paper notes ice breakup is occurring earlier in the Mackenzie Delta, due to local spring warming and less snowfall, but it's unclear whether these changes are enhancing or harming the Western Arctic habitat for belugas. The paper says these initial findings could help with future predictions on how the whales will adapt to changes in their environment.

The 2,200 square kilometres of water under observation included areas such as Shallow Bay, Kugmallit Bay and the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula.

Belugas like chilling near ice edge

During the 2012 ice breakup, researchers counted 755 beluga whales.

"2012 was phenomenal year. There was a lot less ice than there usually was," Hornby said.

By contrast, she said 2013 had "heavy" ice conditions. Researchers counted 413 belugas but they mostly spotted the mammals in areas of open ice.

In addition to a preference to open water, researchers found more belugas close to the ice edge rather than further offshore.

The belugas, the paper says, might be trying to access fresh water because it promotes moulting — the process where belugas shed the outer layer of their skin.

Aside from helping to predict how belugas will respond to habitat changes, Hornby hopes local beluga harvesters can use this data to enhance their search for food as in the midst of climate and ice changes in the region.

"These changes will likely have an impact on hunter success."