Scientists use new satellite tracking devices to research beluga whales in Beaufort Delta

Dustin Whalen has been coming up to the Beaufort Delta region for years to research beluga whales and their habitat. But this year, the COVID-19 pandemic meant things had to run a bit differently.

Beluga habitat program has been going on for years but the COVID-19 pandemic forced changes this year

Gerard Chicksi, Norman Day, and Jimmy Kalinek retrieving a mooring. The instruments collect data on beluga habitat. (Submitted by Joint Secretariat for the Inuvialuit Regional Settlement )

Dustin Whalen has been coming to the Beaufort Delta region to do research for about 15 years, six of which partly focused on beluga whales and their habitat.

But this year, the COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on his return to the North, and he and his team had to rethink how they would carry out crucial research in the western Arctic.

The solution was the same one many other institutions turned to — doing things remotely.

Whalen, a physical scientist with Natural Resources Canada, said staff from his department along with the department of Fisheries and Oceans worked together to come up with a plan.

"We came together and developed these new seabed instruments as the best way forward," Whalen said.

Since there were fewer travel costs this year without the scientists flying north, they bought the new equipment which allowed them to collect information in real time, via satellite.

"So when the instruments were deployed, we knew in seconds what the waves were because it was constantly tracking," said Whalen.

Kalinek and Chukita Gruben help out with the data collection. (Submitted by the Joint Secretariat for Inuvialuit Regional Settlement)

The six instruments, known as mooring devices, collected data in five different locations in the North, including Yukon's Shingle Point and Shallow Bay.

Data such as the sounds of beluga whales, information on the whales' habitat such as water levels, temperature changes, waves, and more were gathered from the machines.

Local help

Whalen said the devices were made so that they could be put together without too much difficulty. Partners at the Aurora Research Institute helped assemble them.

"They were created in such a way that when shipped up North that they wouldn't be too hard for someone who wasn't used to seeing them, to put them together," he said.

Jimmy Kalinek runs Only Way Outfitting, a tourism company in Inuvik. He has helped with the program in previous years and says the program was just as successful this year.

This time around, his role included being responsible for gear, retrieving samples, storing the samples properly and sending them down south.

"That part was a first for me but it's not like I've never done it before. It wasn't hard," said Kalinek. "The communication part was a big help in order to keep the ball rolling smoothly and for us to keep on top of things."

He said that they all had a good working relationship. Kalinek normally brings tourists and scientists out on the land in the summer but that didn't happen this year because of the pandemic.

However, he was happy to see that the research program went on without a hitch.

"There were no drawbacks, anything missed. Everything happened as if they [the researchers] were still in town," said Kalinek.

"We aren't losing any important information because some of these projects they've been running for years … that gap of that one season might've been something important, so I'm really happy that the Inuvialuit was able to continue these programs."

Chukita Gruben, the junior resource coordinator for the Joint Secretariat, said the team was also able to hire six people from Aklavik and Inuvik for the project.

Chukita Gruben is the junior resource coordinator for the Joint Secretariat. She said the research team hired six people from Aklavik and Inuvik for the project. (Submitted by Chukita Gruben)

"Building this partnership and collaborating to get the work done has shown success," said Gruben.

"It was good to get really involved and to inform our people."

Gruben says this partnership should continue on.

"It's great because it saves a lot of costs, and also having our people do it and understand the research and also getting involved in being able to share in other communities what is happening," Gruben said.

Whalen said the other organizations that made the research possible included the Aklavik Hunters and Trappers Committee, Munaqsiyit monitors from the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation.

Improved research strategy

The new approach to the program not only worked, Whalen says, it changed the kind of research they could do.

"Because we were able to really think outside the box and just focus on this type of research, we were actually able to expand what we do," said Whalen.

Jordan McLeod and Cody Kogiak retrieve a mooring. (Submitted by Joint Secretariat for the Inuvialuit Regional Settlement)

Going forward, Whalen said they are hoping to continue the monitoring program like they did it this year.

"This component of our project I think going forward will always be with the community to kind of take the lead on. They are happy doing that and it works for us."