Collaborators: Robert Suydam, Lloyd Lowry, Kathy Frost, Greg O’Corry-Crowe, James Tazruk, Bob Small
Summary: At least five stocks or populations of beluga whales occur in Alaska. One of these stocks, the eastern Chukchi Sea stock, is most commonly seen in coastal waters near Kasegaluk Lagoon in northwestern Alaska during June and July. Despite protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and their importance to many Alaska Native hunters in Point Lay for subsistence, relatively little is known about the movements and seasonal distribution of these whales during the rest of the year.

During late June and early July of 1998–2002, with the help of people from Point Lay, we captured and tagged 23 belugas with satellite-linked depth recorders (SDRs), including 12 adult males, 5 immature males, 2 adult females and 4 immature females. Five animals were tagged in each of the years 1998 and 1999, eight in 2001, and five more in 2002. SDRs provided location information for an average of 67 days. From the tagging location near Point Lay, the animals moved north and east into the northern Chukchi and western Beaufort Sea.

During July–September, movement patterns differed by age and/or sex. All belugas that moved north of 75oN in the Beaufort Sea and Arctic Ocean were males. Adult males tended to use deeper water and to remain there for most of the summer. Five of nine adult males captured from all-male groups traveled through 90% pack ice cover to reach 79oN–80oN by late July/early August.  That’s just about 600 miles from the North Pole and the water is about 10,000 feet deep. What are they doing up so far north?  We’re not sure, but they may be feeding on Arctic cod. Adult males captured from groups that included adult females also moved into deep water but for shorter periods of time.

In all years, adult and immature females remained at or near the continental shelf break throughout summer and early fall. Based on our small sample size, immature males moved farther north than immature females, but not as far north as adult males. Belugas of all ages and both sexes were most often found in water deeper than 200m along and just beyond the continental shelf break. They rarely used the inshore waters within the Outer Continental Shelf lease sale area of the Beaufort Sea. Heavy ice did not seem to inhibit the movements of large adult males in summer since they traveled through and were often located in >90% ice cover. Only three tagged belugas transmitted data after October of the year they were tagged. Those animals migrated south through the Bering Strait into the northern Bering Sea just north of Saint Lawrence Island.

Crew members, Tracy Romano, Robert Suydam, Thomas Nukapigak, and Vince Dollarhide, hold a newly tagged large male beluga in a hoop net.

Crew members, Tracy Romano, Robert Suydam, Thomas Nukapigak, and Vince Dollarhide, hold a newly tagged large male beluga in a hoop net in 1990's.

In 2007, three beluga whales were satellite-tagged.  One of the tags on a male continued to transmit a signal for almost 18 months, from June 8th, 2007, to December 4th, 2008.  This is the longest record for a tagged beluga.  This information was especially helpful for documenting wintering locations, spring migration routes, and variation in summer habitat use.

Crew members in 2007, Jim Tazruk, Greg O'Corry-Crowe, and Bob Small, holding a beluga whale captured in a hoop net. Photos: Renee Hoover

Spider tag being placed on the dorsal ridge of a large male beluga.

Tracy Romano taking a blood sample for health assessment from the fluke of the beluga. Bob Small and Greg O'Corry-Crowe hold the fluke steady.

Close-up of spider tag attached to beluga with antenna

Close-up of spider tag attached to beluga with antenna

Map showing satellite-tag tracks of eastern Chukchi Sea beluga whales in

Map showing satellite-tag tracks of eastern Chukchi Sea beluga whales from 1998 to 2008.

In July of 2010, two immature males were tagged. And, in July of 2012, one mature female was satellite-tagged with the help of Greg O'Corry-Crowe, Tracy Romano, Caryn Rea, Donna Hauser, Leslie Stalker, Gene Bird Tuckfield, and Greg Marshall. This brings the total number of tagged belugas on this project to 26, including 13 adult males, 7 immature males, 4 adult females, 4 immature females.

Satellite Tracking Maps for Eastern Chukchi Sea Stock of Beluga Whales

Click here to see maps for the movements of Eastern Chukchi Sea Stock beluga whales tagged in Point Lay from 1998-2012.

Click here for a satellite-tagging map of the Eastern Chukchi Sea Stock tagged beluga from 2012 combined with other beluga stocks.

Publications:

Suydam, R.S., Lowry, L.F., Frost, K.J., O’Corry-Crowe, G.M., and Pikok, Jr., D. 2001. Satellite Tracking of Eastern Chukchi Sea Beluga Whales into the Arctic Ocean. Arctic 54:237-243.

Suydam, R.S., Lowry, L.F., and Frost, K.J. 2005. Distribution and movements of beluga whales from the Eastern Chukchi Sea stock during summer and early autumn. OCS Study MMS 2005-035 Final Report, 48 pp.

Suydam, R.S. 2009. Age, growth, reproduction and movements of beluga whale (Dephinapterus leucas) form the eastern Chukchi Sea. Dissertation. School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA.

Lowry L.F., Kingsley M.C.S., Hauser D.D.W., Clarke J., Suydam R. 2017. Aerial survey estimates of abundance of the eastern Chukchi Sea stock of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) in 2012. Arctic 70: 273-286. https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic4667.

Givens GH, Ferguson MC, Clarke JT, Willoughby A, Suydam R. 2019. Abundance of the Eastern Chukchi Sea Stock of Beluga Whales, 2012-2017. Report to the International Whaling Commission SC/68A/ASI/09.

More studies on beluga movements using the Satellite Telemetry Data

Collaborators: Robert Suydam, John Citta, Donna Hauser and others

Citta, J.J., et al. 2013. Dive behavior of Eastern Chukchi beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas), 1998-2008. Arctic 66:389-406.

Hauser, D.W., et al. 2014. Population-specific home ranges and migration timing of pacific Arctic beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas). Polar Biology 37:1171-1183. doi 10.1007/s00300-014-1510-1

  • Animation of movements of satellite-tagged belugas from Eastern Chukchi and Eastern Beaufort stocks    This animation shows daily locations of Chukchi Sea ("Chukchi") and Beaufort Sea ("Beaufort") beluga whales, tagged from 1993-2007. Data were collected in collaboration with the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, North Slope Borough, Village of Point Lay, Alaska Department of Fish & Game, and National Marine Fisheries Service (Chukchi) as well as Fisheries and Oceans Canada, villages and Hunter & Trapper Committees of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, and Fisheries Joint Management Committee (Beaufort). See Hauser et al. (2014) for details and additional acknowledgements of individuals and organizations supporting tagging and analysis efforts. 

Hauser, D.W., et al. 2015. Regional diving behavior of Pacific Arctic beluga whales Delphinapterus leucas and possible associations with prey. Marine Ecology Progress Series 541:245-264. doi: 10.3354/meps11530.

Hauser, D.W., Laidre K.L., Stafford K.M., Stern H.L., Suydam R.S., Richard P.R. 2016. Decadal shifts in autumn migration timing by Pacific Arctic beluga whales are related to delayed annual sea ice formation. Global Change Biology, doi:10.1111/gcb.13564.

Noren, S.R., R. Suydam. 2016. Navigating under sea ice promotes rapid maturation of diving physiology and performance in beluga whales. Journal of Experimental Biology 219:2828-2836. doi:10.1242/jeb.143644.

Stafford, K., J.J. Citta, S.R. Okkonen, R.S. Suydam. 2016. Wind-dependent beluga whale dive behavior in Barrow Canyon, Alaska. Deep Sea Research Part I 118:57-65, doi.org/10.1016/j.dsr.2016.10.006.

Citta, J.J., P. Richard, L.F. Lowry, G. O’Corry-Crowe, M. Marcoux, R. Suydam, L.T. Quakenbush, R.C. Hobbs, D. I. Litovka, K.J. Frost, T. Gray, J. Orr, B. Tinker, H. Aderman, M.L. Druckenmiller. 2016. Satellite telemetry reveals population specific winter ranges of beluga whales in the Bering Sea. Marine Mammal Science, DOI: 10.1111/mms.12357

Hauser, D.W., Laidre K.L., Stern H.L., Moore S.E., Suydam R.S., Richard P.R. 2017. Habitat selection by two beluga whale populations in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. PLoS ONE 12(2): e0172755. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172755.

Citta JJ, Lowry LF, Quakenbush LT, Kelly BP, Fischback AS, London JM, Jay CV, Frost KJ, O’Corry-Crowe G, Crawford JA, Boveng PL, Cameron M, von Duyke AL, M Nelson, Harwood LA, Richard P, Suydam R, Heide-Jorgensen MP, Hobbs RC, Litovka DI, Marcoux M, Whiting A, Kennedy AS, George JC, Orr J, Gray T. 2018. A multi-species synthesis of satellite telemetry data in the Pacific Arctic (1987-2015): overlap of marine mammal ranges and core use areas. Deep-Sea Research Part II. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dsr2.2018.02.006.

Hauser, D.W., Laidre K.L., Stern H.L., Suydam R.S., Richard P.R. 2018. Indirect effects of sea ice loss on summer-fall habitat and behaviour for sympatric populations of an Arctic marine predator. Diversity and Distributions00:1-9. https://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12722. (Poster presentation)

Stafford, K.M., M.C. Ferguson, D.D.W. Hauser, S.R. Okkonen, C.L. Berchok, J.J. Citta, J.T. Clarke, E.C. Garland, J. Jones, R.S. Suydam. 2018. Beluga whales in the western Beaufort Sea: Current state of knowledge on timing, distribution, habitat use and environmental drivers. Deep-Sea Research Part II Topical Studies in Oceanography, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.dsr2.2016.11.017

Here are some websites with more information about the beluga hunt at Point Lay:

Point Lay Beluga Whales (NOAA-NMML)
This website has information on the beluga tagging program at Point Lay from 1998-2008.  You can find more maps like the one above for individual whales.

Sea Ghosts
The Point Lay beluga hunt is highlighted in this Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society production. The video is available at the PBS and was broadcast in April of 2009.  Watch for repeat broadcasts!