Graphic showing how to tell a male and female beluga whale apart

Beluga Bits: Citizen Science Project

By Alysa McCall, Director of Conservation Outreach and Staff Scientist



21 Jul 2023

Every summer, we partner with on our Beluga Cams to give viewers an immersive and inspiring view into the underwater world of beluga whales. These Arctic whales are a beloved seasonal visitor to the Churchill River estuary that flows near our interpretive center in Churchill, Manitoba. The live cams are part of our goal to inspire people to care about the Arctic ecosystem.

Belugas are highly adapted to life in and around Arctic sea ice. Sea ice forms the base of the food chain for many beluga populations. While belugas are near the top of the food web, they rely on algae, zooplankton, and fishes that are parts of the Arctic ecosystem. Also, sea ice offers the smooth-backed belugas protection from predatory orcas, whose dorsal fins make it difficult to navigate through the sea ice-covered ocean.  

Though belugas need sea ice, we see thousands of them in Churchill during the summer ice-free season when they travel down to use the warmer waters of the Churchill River for raising their babies, molting their skin, and eating plenty of small fish like capelin. Though there is no ice cover, the shallower waters offer protection from the large orca whales that occasionally venture into Hudson Bay. Since 2016, we’ve teamed up with the Assiniboine Park Zoo on a citizen science project that relies on video from the underwater Beluga Cam. The collaborative research project, called Beluga Bits, gives viewers the opportunity to actively participate in the classification and identification of belugas.

We caught up with Dr. Stephen Petersen of the Assiniboine Park Zoo, which is part of our Arctic Ambassador Center network, to get an update on the project and developments.

Beluga whales play underwater

Photo: Madison Stevens / Polar Bears International

How can people take part in Beluga Bits?

There are two ways that folks who are passionate about belugas and the ocean can get involved and encounter these whales virtually. The first is to collect snapshots of belugas from the Beluga Cam in July and August. The second way is to help classify the Beluga Bits images here. The workflows on Beluga Bits sometimes change to reflect different research interests, but many involve identifying the beluga’s orientation (e.g., can you see its underside?), what parts of the beluga are visible, and distinguishing markings on the belugas themselves. The Beluga Bits community is so keen that we occasionally run out of data to classify. If that happens check back often as we will have new data or workflows you can help us with.

How did Beluga Bits begin?

Like many projects, Beluga Bits started with a lot of questions about beluga whales followed by putting the pieces together to make it work. I had been studying belugas and other Arctic marine mammals for a few years and happened to be working on another project in Churchill with Meagan Hainstock looking at beluga behavior. While we were out on the water, we would get these tantalizing glimpses of belugas who had scars and marks that we thought could be used for photo identification, a common way to study other whales non-invasively.

Typically, with other whale species, you can use markings on the dorsal fins or the contrast of their body color with scarring to help identify them. Belugas on the other hand are much harder to identify given that they don’t have dorsal fins and are white as adults. While we were in Churchill and chatting with colleagues at Polar Bears International, we were introduced to the Beluga Cam.

It didn’t take very long watching the live stream to realize that this could be an amazing data source for capturing the full body images of beluga whales underwater. In fact, we realized we could often see a lot more than just the individual marks—because the beluga would often swim upside down, we could see their “bits” and determine if they were male or female, and thus Beluga Bits was born. It still took a couple of years to get to where we are today with the community collecting snapshots that we then use in our project to get folks from around the world to help with classification.

In what ways has the project developed in the seven years it’s been running?

Our project has grown in scope every year since 2016. On Beluga Bits, we now have over 25,000 registered participants who have completed nearly 5 million classifications! There have been upgrades and changes to almost every aspect of the project. Our longstanding partnership with Polar Bears International has ensured incredible video footage every year, but they have also been able to expand video collection to other parts of Western Hudson Bay in addition to the in-estuary footage. An exciting development we have incorporated recently is the use of artificial intelligence, specifically machine learning, to help remove photos without belugas before uploading. Too many photos of just water are not that fun for participants to sort through and AI can quickly do this boring task. We partnered with a computer science professor and a student at the University of Manitoba to create an algorithm that can automatically detect frames that contain belugas, and those that do not. We have been using this algorithm since 2021 to pre-sort images that are ultimately uploaded to Beluga Bits.

Are there any new research questions your team is pursuing?

One cool development has been the need to develop a workflow dedicated to jellies and jellyfish species in the estuary. Many of our participants started pointing out interesting jellyfish in the beluga images so we wanted to explore these species further. This workflow started with three species we knew of, the moon jellyfish, the lion’s mane jellyfish, and the Arctic comb jelly. However participants quickly started pointing out other individuals that looked different. We now have been able to confirm five species in the estuary, adding the melon comb jelly and the common northern comb jelly to our list. In fact this project was the first to document northern comb jellies this far south in Hudson Bay. We are particularly interested in monitoring jelly and jellyfish populations as these species can be indicators of ecosystem change in ocean habitats. As the Arctic ocean warms and there is increasing ship traffic, we may start to see new species of jellies and jellyfish appear in this environment. It’s important that we monitor these species as they may provide greater insights into the ecosystem and emerging threats. 

Can you share some results you’ve had from the project?

We have had some awesome breakthroughs in the project thanks to the help of citizen scientists! We have been able to resight two different whales now based on unique marks seen in our photo dataset. One whale (shown in the photo below) has a series of dot-like marks on the side of its dorsal ridge. This whale was resighted in 2021, the third year it has been spotted. Similarly, we had another resighting in 2021 of a whale with a large scar across its melon that was originally seen in 2017. These resightings are so important because we can start to paint a picture of what whales are returning to the estuary, how frequently, and how they are healing!

How does the data from this project inform conservation efforts?

It is typically very expensive to monitor Arctic marine mammals like belugas (and polar bears), but we hope that over time this project will help in the monitoring of this population to detect threats and management action can be put in place before numbers decline. This project is a non-invasive way to detect emerging threats, as some injuries are easily attributed to a cause. For example, if we started to see injuries from boat propellers we could work with locals to take action. In fact, we have never observed a beluga with propeller injuries—a testament to the care that Churchillains and ecotour operators take to keep belugas safe. 

Western Hudson Bay is also being evaluated as a possible National Marine Conservation Area (NMCA) and information about the species that inhabit the ecosystem are vital to getting this designation. NMCAs are established to regulate activity, use, and protect the species and habitats within them. We are hoping that information from the Beluga Bits program will help inform managers when making this important decision and monitoring the population into the future.

You’ve also started a new Beluga Bits in the Classroom initiative. Can you tell us about that?

Sure. It's a classroom-friendly version of the project that teaches you how to use Beluga Bits at home or in the classroom. It includes thematic modules that we’ve created around issues involving belugas, their ecosystem, and ocean health. We want to help people discover why citizen science projects are important, and how each of us can support beluga whales and the Arctic. It is designed so that teachers can bring Beluga Bits into the classroom but others can use it to practice. Just remember to hit the main page after you’ve had some practice because that helps belugas the most.

Are belugas impacted by climate change? If yes, how?

That is a great question without an easy answer. We know belugas are Arctic-adapted species so if the habitat becomes less like the Arctic they will face increased pressures. We also know that belugas are found farther south than Churchill in places like the St. Lawrence River in eastern Canada. These belugas are not doing very well and are listed as endangered but we are not sure how much of that is climate related and how much is due to other human activities. We suspect that as the habitat changes due to climate warming, belugas will face increasing threats as prey distribution and abundance changes, as the ocean becomes more acidic and noisy, and as people expand their activities. Ultimately, beluga populations are only found in places with seasonal sea ice so reductions in this habitat will not benefit beluga.

Is there anything else you wanted to say about the project?

We wanted to say a massive thank you to everyone who has contributed to the project over the years! Whether it’s contributing classifications on Beluga Bits, or taking snapshots on the livestream, these data are so important to our project and it allows us to explore so many interesting and vital research avenues. We genuinely couldn’t do it without you!