News Animals Get Way Up Close and Personal With Beluga Whales Live cam shows swimming, eating, parenting, and playing. By Mary Jo DiLonardo Mary Jo DiLonardo LinkedIn Twitter Senior Writer University of Cincinnati Mary Jo DiLonardo has worked in print, online, and broadcast journalism for 25 years and covers nature, health, science, and animals. Learn about our editorial process Updated July 20, 2021 01:02PM EDT Fact checked by Haley Mast Fact checked by Haley Mast LinkedIn Harvard University Extension School Haley Mast is a freelance writer, fact-checker, and small organic farmer in the Columbia River Gorge. She enjoys gardening, reporting on environmental topics, and spending her time outside snowboarding or foraging. Topics of expertise and interest include agriculture, conservation, ecology, and climate science. Learn about our fact checking process Share Twitter Pinterest Email Belugas make an appearance on cam. PBI, explore.org, Zooniverse, Assiniboine Park Zoo News Environment Business & Policy Science Animals Home & Design Current Events Treehugger Voices News Archive People aren't the only ones traveling this summer. In July and August, more than 57,000 beluga whales will migrate from the Arctic to the warmer waters of the Churchill River in Manitoba, Canada. They head south for food, to nurse their calves, and to molt. The Beluga Whale Live Cam offers viewers a glimpse at all these underwater behaviors. There are cameras both above deck and underwater on a boat, which is guided through the Churchill River estuary in Hudson Bay. The live footage shows belugas swimming, eating, and caring for their babies. The cam is supported by the streaming network explore.org and Polar Bears International (PBI), a nonprofit dedicated to saving polar bears and Arctic sea ice. Belugas depend on sea ice for food and protection. Sea ice supports the growth of algae, which triggers the food chain, feeding microorganisms, which feed fish, which feed seals and belugas, which feed polar bears. But the decline in sea ice is causing their habitats to shifts so they have to dive deeper and longer to find food. Sea ice also offers slow-swimming belugas protection from predators. Because they don't have dorsal fins like orcas, they can hide more easily in the ice and swim close to the surface. Whale fans can watch and listen as belugas eat, parent, and play in warm Canadian waters. The camera also is part of the Beluga Bits citizen science project, where people capture and classify screenshots from the camera. More than 4 million photo classifications have been made including two jellyfish species that have never been recorded in Hudson Bay. Alysa McCall, director of conservation outreach and staff scientists at Polar Bears International, and Ashleigh Westphal, conservation technician at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, spoke to Treehugger about the cam and the discoveries. Treehugger: What’s the history of the Beluga Cam? Why and where was it launched? Alysa McCall: The beluga cam was launched in 2014 as a collaboration between Explore.org and Polar Bears International. Since we were already collaborating on multiple polar bear cams in the fall season, we thought it would be amazing to also share the incredible summer beluga whale migration that occurs in the Churchill river estuary. The tech gurus at each organization (Explore.org and Polar Bears International) love a challenge, and they thought, “why not engineer an underwater camera with a hydrophone?”—and that’s what they did. The beluga boat and both the Underwater and Above Water cameras have gone through a handful of upgrades and innovations, but have been operating in the summer months ever since. In 2020 we transitioned from a zodiac to a hard sided boat, which has been a significant upgrade. And in 2021, a smart antenna was added to improve range and quality. Beluga whale with calf. PBI, explore.org, Zooniverse, Assiniboine Park Zoo What can viewers expect to see? McCall: Viewers can expect to see and hear dozens (or more) of adult belugas and their calves swimming, nursing, and feeding in the Churchill River estuary. Due to their curious nature, many beluga swim right up to the Underwater camera and play in the wake of the boat. Perhaps one of the most interesting elements of the beluga cam experience is hearing the whales vocalizing and communicating with each other. The Above Water camera captures amazing scenes of the many belugas, and occasionally spots polar bears swimming or walking along the shoreline as well! During the summer months polar bears in the area are forced to shore as the sea ice melts, where they wait on land for the sea ice to freeze again in the fall. How does it play a part with the Beluga Bits citizen scientist project? McCall: The underwater video footage from the Beluga Boat camera holds a wealth of photographic information about beluga whales in the Churchill River estuary. Several years ago, researchers at the Assiniboine Park Zoo (APZ) partnered with PBI and Explore.org to start examining snapshots from the Underwater Camera in order to gain more insight into the belugas’ underwater world. This project, titled Beluga Bits, involved Citizen Scientists taking snapshots of the whales and alerting researchers to interesting findings. As the project expanded the research team started to collect hours of video from the beluga cam which resulted in hundreds of thousands of images each year. We encourage people to participate. To help researchers streamline the large data set, APZ recently partnered with a professor and master’s student from the University of Manitoba specializing in machine learning who produced an algorithm that can rapidly sort photos and remove photos that do not contain whales. This allows the participants in the Beluga Bits project to spend more time classifying whales. How many people have taken part so far and from where? McCall: Since Beluga Bits was launched, we have engaged over 17,000 community members on Zooniverse alone who’ve logged over 11,000 volunteer hours while contributing more than 4 million photo classifications! This project has not only helped us understand beluga whales better, but it also offers a unique view into their rich underwater habitat. Beluga Bits has evolved quite a bit since it first started. Currently, we are asking volunteers to help us clip out each beluga from the images and answer associated questions. This allows us to easily group similar photos so we can address a variety of different research questions. For example, we can look at all the photos where the entire beluga's body is in view and score it for body condition. Changes in body condition over the years might tell us about the health of the population or if wildlife managers need to take action. And the monitoring is all done in a non-invasive way. What have been some of the coolest highlights? McCall: A previously satellite-tagged beluga was re-sighted in one of the underwater photos prompting a collaboration with biologists at Fisheries and Oceans Canada to compare re-sightings from different beluga sub-populations across the Arctic. Reports of re-sightings of tagged whales are rare, but can provide insights into wound healing and potential long-term effects of tagging techniques. Beluga Bits not only helps us understand beluga whales better but it’s also offered a unique view into their rich underwater habitat. One of the exciting findings from this project so far has been photo evidence of two new jellyfish species in the estuary—the melon comb jellyfish and common northern comb jellyfish (not previously documented within Hudson Bay). Beluga Bits also tells us a lot about beluga whales summering in the Churchill River estuary, inspiring questions and providing opportunities for early-career scientists to build their research skills. This year, Beluga Bits supported the research of a master’s and an undergraduate student. A master’s student from the University of Manitoba is using underwater photos to investigate beluga whale biology and social structure in the Churchill River estuary. An undergraduate student from the UK examined the potential effects of sea ice cover and water discharge might have on how frequently different skin conditions occur in this population of beluga. common northern comb jellyfish. PBI, explore.org, Zooniverse, Assiniboine Park Zoo How were two jellyfish spotted? How did the identification process happen? Ashleigh Westphal: Last fall, APZ launched a workflow on Zooniverse titled “Is that a jellyfish?” asking volunteers to identify jellyfish spotted in the underwater beluga photos. Several volunteers pointed out two jellyfish that didn’t look like the others that we already knew lived within the estuary. After conferring with colleagues, it was determined that they were likely melon comb jellyfish (Beroe cucumis) and common northern comb jellyfish (Bolinopsis infundibulum). Common northern comb are medium-sized jellyfish that have a pair of pad-shaped lobes on either side of their mouth. These lobes help funnel prey towards the mouth of the jellyfish and each lobe will often have a dark patch near the end. Both melon comb and common northern comb jellyfish have rows of cilia to help them move through their environment and for feeding; they are also bioluminescent. Why were those discoveries so important? Westphal: Jellyfish can be an important indicator species in aquatic ecosystems, meaning that changes in their populations can give us insight about changes in water conditions and ecosystem health in general. The first step is identifying which species are present within the ecosystem, which citizen scientists have been helping us with on Beluga Bits. The next step will be monitoring these populations to gain a better understanding of how different facets of the ecosystem are doing and whether changes are occurring. Spotting common northern comb jellyfish was particularly exciting. They are found throughout the Arctic but this could be the first time they’ve been recorded in Hudson Bay. Monitoring this region via underwater camera footage may help us understand the area’s ecology and its potential shifts, including studying noninvasive species. This is one reason why it’s so important to collect long-term data. What tips do you have for viewers who want to watch the cam? McCall: The boat operates two hours on each side of the high tide. Keep the tide chart handy and tune in for the best live viewing hours each day. Make sure to turn up your speakers in addition to watching the visuals to hear the amazing underwater acoustics of the beluga’s world! Be sure to ask the beluga boat captains your questions in the comments section on Explore.org. View Article Sources Alysa McCall, director of conservation outreach and staff scientists at Polar Bears International, and Ashleigh Westphal, conservation technician at Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg McCall, Alysa. "Sea Ice: the Beluga's Protector." Polar Bears International.