8/13/2013 3:51:58 PM

Beluga Whales: An Eye to the Camera

By BJ Kirschhoffer, Director of Field Operations

With my long johns packed and light coat tucked away in my bag, I felt like I was setting off on a winter trip. This was a strange feeling because the temperature in my room was a sweltering 85°! It's hard to pack for the cold when sweat is dripping from your brow.

Working for a conservation organization that focuses on polar bears requires the willingness to travel to cold places. And in the northern latitudes even in the summer months the temperature swings can vary from warm to chilly in a matter of moments. I was packing for Churchill, a small town known for its polar bear tourism. I had never been to Churchill in July and was very excited to see the tundra in bloom.  

Typically we at Polar Bears International direct all of our efforts toward polar bears. But this trip was different: its purpose was to highlight beluga whales in partnership with explore.org, IP Video Specialists (IPVS), and Parks Canada. The four of us have joined together to install streaming webcams that will capture images of wild beluga whales in the Churchill River.

Every summer thousands—and I mean thousands—of these white whales come to Churchill after the ice breaks up on Hudson Bay. Scientists believe they're looking for warmer waters for their newborn calves. Locals estimate somewhere around 3,000 of these friendly and beautiful creatures swim in and around the Churchill River. At nearly any time of day you can go down to the river and see the white backs of belugas coming up to the surface to breathe. It's a remarkable sight to see such a huge collection of one species all in one location.

PBI has invested much in the way of infrastructure for our virtual learning programs (Tundra Connections), which we conduct in the fall from Churchill. I've been looking for another use for the equipment and bandwidth that sits dormant during the off-season. After seeing the whales for the first time a few years ago, I found the gathering nearly as amazing as the polar bear migration in the fall. I wanted to find a way to share this with other people in the hope they would find some interest in it too. When explore.org agreed to give it a try, I was ecstatic.

Our plan was to install three cameras in the mouth of the Churchill River: two on the west side mounted on the Hudson Bay Port Company's grain elevator and one on the east side mounted on a Department of Fisheries and Oceans' day marker, which helps ships navigate.

With months of planning behind us, the install always feels like the easy part. It also happens to be the most fun. I'm a person who loves being outside working and playing so to be in the Arctic during the summer with an outdoor job is great.  During the install it seemed as if the weather gods knew our schedule: Each day when an indoor task was at hand the sun was out and the birds chirping. But when it came time for an outdoor task, the wind and rain would whip up and cause a delay.  

One afternoon we were up about 50 feet from the water on the superstructure of the grain elevator when out of nowhere the wind increased from a light breeze to a steady blow of over 40 MPH in about 10 seconds. It was the craziest thing I've ever seen! Not far behind the rain picked up and, aided by the wind, hurled toward the ground with an impressive force.

The weather made installing a camera at the top of the port a challenge too. Wind speeds at the top of the structure are very high since we are so far from the ground. With some good teamwork and lots of planning, Tim Sears from IPVS and I managed to get a camera on a pole 10 feet above the roof on the very top of the impressively large structure.

Trips across the river to install the gear were amazing. With every crossing we were followed by groups of whales coming over to check us out. The whales would rise to the surface and turn to the side and look at us with one large eye. A crazy, unique, and very cool experience!

In just under a week we managed to mount three cameras and get all the equipment in good working order. The Beluga Cam starts today on the explore.org website with two views: the Gallery Cam and the Sky View Cam.

I want to thank all our friends in Churchill who helped make this happen. The list includes: the Hudson Bay Port Company, Sea North Tours, The Tundra Inn, L&D Cable Company, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Parks Canada.

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