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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

At Home in the Arctic, Belugas Face New Threats

ReutersOne of the White Sea's population of 2,000 belugas surfacing in the icy waters near Bolshoi Solovetsky Island in July.
BOLSHOI SOLOVETSKY ISLAND -- Summer doesn't last long on the edge of the Arctic Circle, but on the remote Solovetsky Islands on the White Sea it marks the remarkable return every year of beluga whales just meters from the shore.

Scientists say it is the only place in the world where the whales come so close. Like many whales worldwide, these belugas are threatened -- not by hunting but by the quest for energy and people's gradual encroachment on their habitat through shipping.

The whales come most days in good weather. Highly gregarious, the white mammals frolic and twist together with their calves, sometimes in schools of 50, lazily breaking the surface with their long backs, before diving underwater at a location now known as Beluga Cape.

Described by environmentalists as one of Russia's national treasures, the beluga, which resemble large dolphins, will be fighting for survival as the Arctic develops and shipping, energy projects and pollution threaten their natural habitat, Russian scientists say.

"The greatest dangers for beluga whales are oil and gas -- energy development, marine traffic and even ecotourism," said Roman Belikov, of the Institute of Oceanology of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

He fears that, unless properly managed, tourists seeking to enjoy the wildlife could disturb the whales.

Belikov has spent every summer for the last eight years with a small band of marine biologists studying the belugas. He is optimistic that, given time, the whales can adapt.

"They can learn to accept motor engines if fishermen are careful with the distance and speed," he said. "It's like people in cities adapting to the nearby sound from underground trains."

Climate change may also threaten the belugas, but there is no conclusive proof so far that warming seas or changing currents are affecting them, he says.

Like the other biologists, Belikov talks affectionately of the animals and willingly spends two months with no electricity, running water or toilets, so he can observe them.

Wading out to the observation tower on the foreshore of the cape every day the whales appear, his colleague and team leader, Vera Krasnova, is returning for her 12th summer.

Her husband is also a researcher on the island and they work together, leaving their young daughter with her grandmother in Krasnoyarsk. Krasnova laughs when asked to explain why she finds the belugas so fascinating.

"These are animals with a very graphic, very vivid social organization," she says. "It's interesting to study their behavior in a group, to see how they come together."

There are an estimated 100,000 belugas in eight colonies around the world, with 2,000 in the White Sea.

Krasnova and her three assistants spend hours making careful notes of individual animals, with nicknames like "Quasimodo" for a male and "Belle" for a female.

Belikov, an acoustics expert, has been trying to crack beluga communications, but says he still has a lot to learn.

"They're very noisy and when they gather here for reproduction, they communicate with each other very intensively," he said. The observation tower is filled with these sounds, transmitted by special microphones.

"They have a very diverse vocal repertory, with many different sounds, like whistles, squeaks and howls," Belikov said. "Some sounds seem like a baby crying or a bird when it chirps."

Belikov recoiled when asked whether he believed the whales should be fished commercially for their meat.

"Eat them? They are very kind, clever and nice," he said. "I think it's impossible, I see no reason to do it -- Why? Why?"

The project receives aid from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which shares the concerns for their natural habitat as Russia plans to develop energy reserves in the Barents Sea, IFAW spokesman Igor Belyatsky said.

"Like any major oil and gas development, it might pollute the sea with intense ship and air traffic, with a lot of noise," Belyatsky said. "The whales are very sensitive to any kind of noise."

He said Russia's biggest challenge was not putting laws in place, but implementing existing controls.

"People are starting to understand that Russia's main treasure is its nature, after the people," Belyatsky said. "Oil and gas will disappear, but nature and these animals must stay."

The IFAW hopes that all the islands will be declared a heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The monastery on Bolshoi Solovetsky Island, which was converted into the first major camp in Stalin's gulag, already enjoys the designation from UNESCO.

"We have these dark times behind us. And it's good to come here and see a corner of untouched nature," Belyatsky said. "You get the feeling of an old culture and of nature still mostly untouched."