Daniel Hubbell Belugas Comes South -- to Northeast

With its distinctive white skin and high-pitched cries, the beluga whale is an emblem of the Arctic Ocean. Most belugas reside in the Arctic waters of Alaska, Canada, Russia and Greenland, which has made the recent appearance of a trio of belugas along the Northeast coast a surprise.

From Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay to Long Island, and now the Shrewsbury River in New Jersey, captivated boaters and beachgoers have watched the white whales travel past. It is unclear what caused the three juvenile whales to travel this far from their native St. Lawrence estuary habitat in Canada. Are they following prey? Or perhaps like teenagers the world over, the whales just felt like taking a trip. We can only speculate.

Unfortunately for the belugas, while they may be a rare sight in the Northeast, humans are becoming an ever-increasing presence in their Arctic Ocean home. Thanks in large part to the impact of climate change, the Arctic is accessible as never before.

Much has already been said of Shell’s plan to drill six exploratory wells in the Chukchi Sea, northwest of Alaska, in its quixotic drive to extract oil from the Arctic Ocean, but they are far from the only ones with plans for the Arctic.

The warming region has meant a longer shipping season as well -- from 2008 to 2012, the number of ships passing through the Bering Strait more than doubled. Even the fabled Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic and along the northern coast of Alaska may become a viable shipping route in the future.

Soon tourists will be invading the regions, as planning for luxury Arctic cruises has begun.

For the belugas and other marine mammals endemic to the Arctic, this will mean a noisier and more dangerous ocean. Alaska’s west and northern coasts are home to four populations of the white whales, several of which are still recovering from decades of commercial whaling.

Belugas rely on sound to communicate and hunt, which engines and vessel activity can drown out. Even at distances of more than 30 miles, belugas flee from ice-breakers and other loud vessels.

Even as it becomes more accessible, the Arctic is still an unpredictable environment, with gale force winds and 50 foot swells. If a major spill were to occur in beluga habitat, it would be impossible to clean up.

Currently about 1,150 workers are trying to clean up an estimated 101,000 gallons of oil that spilled from a pipeline near a stretch of the Santa Barbara coastline. It took days to fully come together and begin a comprehensive cleanup of nine miles of oil-streaked beaches. Were a similar-sized spill to occur in the Arctic, it could take weeks for a major Coast Guard presence to even get to the site, much less begin to tackle the monumental cleanup.


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This segment is brought to you through a partnership between the UNDP Climate Change Team at the Ministry of Environment in Lebanon and the NAHARNET team. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any party/institution.

Photo credit: National Geographic

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