Scientists aim to unlock the mysteries of the beluga whale

An expedition of scientists will devote the fall and winter to figuring out the migration habits of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence estuary — and help ensure the survival of the species.

Where do an estimated 900 whales spend their winter months?

Aurora, a 20-year-old Beluga whale, swims with her calf at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., in 2009. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

An expedition of scientists will devote the fall and winter to figuring out the migration habits of beluga whales in the St. Lawrence estuary — and help ensure the survival of the species.

There are roughly 900 belugas in the St. Lawrence today, down from 10,000 in 1885.

It's no mystery that the belugas spend their summers in the St. Lawrence between St-Jean-Port-Joli and Rimouski, Que., but their winter migration patterns are less clear.

So far, tracking the animals has proven difficult. Scientists were recently unable to attach geo-transmitters on six belugas.

"They were too fast or they were hard to follow, but the scientists will go back and try again to tag them," said Sophie Paradis, the World Wildlife Fund's executive director for Quebec.

'Requires a lot of skill'

Tagging a whale frolicking in the St. Lawrence requires skill and dexterity and an appetite for danger. 

"Imagine yourself on a boat in the middle of the estuary between Tadoussac and Trois-Pistoles and chasing a beluga," she said.

"We have to follow it from about seven or eight metres away. The tag is small and we have to be really precise. It requires a lot of skill."

Learning about migration and feeding patterns will help scientists take measures to help the whales, who are currently coping with such threats as water pollution, declining ice coverage and food shortages. 

"The more information we have, the more tools we'll have to protect them," said Paradis. 

The project is being led by Quebec's Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) in collaboration with the Maurice Lamontagne Institute, which is a member of the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

It's expected to wrap up next February.