30 years with the St. Lawrence belugas

Written by Robert Michaud, President and Scientific Director of the Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM)
Over the past 30 summers, I have spent thousands of hours at sea with the St. Lawrence belugas. I find this job as exciting today as it was on my first day—but I’ve never before been as worried about the state of belugas in the St. Lawrence River.

St. Lawrence beluga
St. Lawrence beluga © GREMM

I began studying belugas with my friend and colleague Pierre Béland. In the early 1980s, Pierre found the carcass of a whale beached in Rimouski, Québec. He and Daniel Martineau, a veterinary pathologist, examined the animal to understand what had caused its death. They found that the beluga died because it was heavily contaminated with toxic pollutants. This discovery drove Pierre and Daniel to establish a major research program to study the causes and effects of contamination of belugas in 1983. That same year, the St. Lawrence belugas made their first appearance on the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada list of endangered species.
Inspired by these findings, I chose to study the population distribution and habitat of the beluga, so we could identify where all these contaminants originated. As we worked to establish links between the health of the ecosystem and the health of belugas, I was amazed to discover such fascinating animals. I began to recognize individual belugas by the small nicks and scars on their sides.
It was thrilling to watch the St. Lawrence gain more protection, to know our research was making a difference. But there was still much to learn. As we began to unlock the secrets of the social life of the beluga, we kept coming back to basic questions. We knew where belugas lived in the summer, but their wintering grounds remained a mystery. Where are the whales in the winter? What are they doing?
These questions still need answers, and the matter is becoming increasingly urgent. A recent study showed that the population is declining again. Among the possible causes is climate change, which affects the conditions of the beluga habitat, including where and how they spend their winters.
Data collected over the past 30 years has allowed us to identify the summer beluga habitat that needs to be protected. The challenge now is to identify and secure their winter habitat, so we can help ensure the survival of belugas in the St. Lawrence River.
Our beluga work depends on your support. Donate now to help us protect beluga whales.