Meet the Beluga Whale Scientist Joining Our New Summer Tour!

Say hello to Dr. Valeria Vergara, the veteran beluga whale and ocean scientist who is our special guest on our brand new 2021 summer tour, Conservation Journey: Beluga Whales!

For 18 years, Dr. Valeria Vergara has designed and conducted studies on beluga whales and other marine mammals, accomplishing the first-ever research to document how beluga calves develop the incredibly rich vocal repertoire of this species. Her research addresses the impacts of anthropogenic noise on beluga populations and the challenges such sound-centered species face in their increasingly noisy environment.

To help you get to know her better, we got in touch with Valeria for a Q&A on her important research!

A beluga whale research boat in the Churchill River estuary.

Image © Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Q: For those who don’t know you or your work, could you briefly describe the kind of research that you do?

A: I study marine mammal communication, with a strong focus on beluga whales, which are such a loquacious species that they were nicknamed “Canaries of the Sea”. My research over the last 18 years looked at the function of beluga sounds, at how beluga calves learn and develop the rich vocal repertoire of the adults, at contact calls used between mothers and calves and between adults to stay in contact with their groups (this is important, as belugas are a very social species!), and at the impacts of underwater noise pollution on their ability to communicate effectively.

 

Q: How did you get into your line of work? What made you so passionate about marine life? 

A: I've been fascinated by the rich social lives of social animals, and by the way they think and communicate, since I can remember. Up until I started my doctoral thesis on beluga whales back in 2002, my experience was mostly with canids. I had studied coyotes in Yellowstone National Park for my undergraduate thesis, and red foxes in rural areas of Southern Ontario for my masters, and had worked as a research assistant on projects involving Darwin foxes, grey foxes, and wolves. But I had done a lot of reading on cetaceans throughout the years, and had taken a couple of independent studies courses on whale cognition and communication during my undergrad years. I was very intrigued by their complex communication systems, which are a window into their social lives. So when I received a grant to pursue my PhD, I contacted Lance Barrett Lennard, the director of the Marine Mammal Research Lab at Ocean Wise, who studies killer whales, and I asked if he would take me on as a student. At the time, he had no available project on killer whales, but he mentioned that a beluga calf was about to be born at the Vancouver Aquarium, and suggested that I could study the way beluga calves acquire the incredibly complex vocal repertoire of adult belugas. I jumped at this opportunity, and the PhD project expanded to include some field work in Hudson Bay (in the Nelson River Estuary, a project led by Pierre Richard, a regular presence in Churchill) and in the St Lawrence River Estuary. One study led to another, and 18 years later, I am still studying beluga whales!

 

Q: You’re an expert in mother-calf acoustic communication in beluga whales. What makes the relationship between mothers and calves special?

A: Belugas are long-lived, very gregarious marine mammals with very strong mother-infant bonds and a long period of infant dependency. This means that, much like in humans, mother-calf beluga pairs remain together for many years. This is because it may be important for young belugas to travel with their mothers for several years to learn the migration routes, where to overwinter, where to spend the summer, what and where to eat, how to communicate with others, how to raise the young (belugas help raise each other’s calves!) and all the many complex aspects of growing up to be a successful beluga!

 

Q: As you mentioned, beluga whales are often referred to as the “Canaries of the Sea”, meaning they are very vocal creatures. What about their vocalization/communication is different from other marine mammals?

A: Actually, beluga whales use all the main sound types produced by all toothed whales: whistles, pulsed sounds, and clicks for echolocation. But the repertoire of vocalizations that they put together through using and combining these sound types is very diverse, and different than in other whales. We generally find that whale species that have very stable groups, like killer whales, often have shared group-specific calls. And socially fluid species, in which individuals form long-term associations and friendships but group composition can fluctuate periodically, like bottlenose dolphins, tend to have individually distinctive calls. Belugas are more like bottlenose dolphins. What is very cool is that we recently found preliminary evidence that the contact calls of beluga whales may be individually distinctive, like acoustic “name tags”. My research assistant and I published this paper last year, and we are working to confirm this idea in the St Lawrence River estuary. How are we doing this? You can ask me about it during our Conservation Journey: Beluga Whales adventure!

 

Q: Your research finds that underwater noise levels are a threat to beluga whale populations. Could you briefly describe what causes underwater noise and how it negatively affects beluga whales?

A: Water transmits sound much more efficiently than air and over vastly greater distances. Levels of underwater human-generated noise have increased at a staggering rate over the last sixty years. Sources include military sonar, seismic air-guns for oil and gas exploration, shipping traffic, and recreational boat traffic. Whales, including belugas, use sound for nearly every aspect of their lives: to communicate, maintain contact, navigate, detect prey and avoid predators. This is why noise pollution is a serious threat to belugas across much of their range. It can disrupt their behaviour, displace whales from their habitats, reduce feeding opportunities, and impair their ability to communicate efficiently and stay in touch with one another.

Our most recent work in the St Lawrence River Estuary found that the calls that newborn beluga calves produce are much quieter than adult calls, which makes them particularly sensitive to increases in underwater noise. Noise can reduce the distance that a newborn calf could be heard by their mother to only a few tens of meters.

 

Q: Have there been any positive steps in recent years toward reducing underwater noise?

A: Absolutely! Underwater noise is a problem that we can do something about. Some positive steps in recent years have been:

  1. The creation of acoustic sanctuaries that are off-limits to boats and become quiet “havens” for whales. For example, in the St Lawrence River Estuary, a small but important nursery area called Bay St Marguerite, where I had my research tower, was declared off-limits to boats in 2018. 
  2. Reducing engine speed has been shown to be an effective way to reduce the acoustic footprint of a boat, and there are now private-public efforts to monitor and reduce noise pollution from ships in several ports. For example, the Port of Vancouver is involved in voluntary slowdown trials for large ships, which helps reduce noise in killer whale habitat. The St Lawrence Marine Park, in the heart of beluga habitat, recommends a constant speed between 5 and 10 knots, whenever possible.  
  3. Some shipping companies are beginning to use technology for quieter ships. For example, just refits that clean the hull and polish the propeller can reduce underwater noise by 3-6 dB (this is a logarithmic scale, so that’s quite a reduction). Propellers can be shaped differently to lessen noise (and fuel consumption!), and some Ferry companies are adopting these propellers.
  4. Developing incentive or performance based programs, such as those initiated by the Port of Vancouver via the ECHO program, which offers discounts on harbour fees to ships that have low noise emissions. This program started in 2017 and made Canada the first country in the world to encourage quieter ships!

 

Q: What action(s) can individuals take to reduce noise pollution in our oceans? 

A: There's plenty of actions that people can take to reduce underwater noise pollution, including:

  • Individuals piloting recreational boats can slow down! That goes a long way to reduce underwater noise.
  • Individuals can buy the quieter equipment like motors and propellers for their boats.
  • Individuals that use echosounders on their boats could replace their high frequency echosounders (HFs) that produce sound between 24 and 50 kHz (within the hearing range of many marine mammals) with very high frequency echosounders (VHFs) which are typically above 200 kHz, outside the range of hearing of marine mammal species.
  • Raise awareness of the problem through social media, schools, talking to your kids, talking to your friends… Spread the message! More people need to learn about the problem of noise pollution in our oceans, so that, together, we can influence change.

 

Q: What do you hope visitors will take away from Conservation Journey: Beluga Whales?

A: I want to foster awareness about this incredible, long-lived, intelligent, social, chatty species that lives in a quickly changing Arctic. I hope that visitors will take away that understanding ice-dependent Arctic species is very relevant at a time when the consequences of the rapid changes we are seeing in the arctic are still unknown. The arctic is undergoing a profound transformation, and belugas, narwhals, polar bears, walruses are all ice-dependent species that will be profoundly affected by a shifting ice cover and the unprecedented changes happening in the Arctic.

 

Q: Partial proceeds from Conservation Journey: Beluga Whales go directly to the non-profit organization, Ocean Wise. What kind of work does Ocean Wise do to improve ocean health?

A: Ocean Wise Conservation Association leads a range of world-class research, education, conservation and marine mammal rescue initiatives.

  • Ocean Wise Education engaged more than 560,000 children and youth participants in 2019.
  • Ocean Wise Research is a team of 40 scientists and researchers who conduct vitally important work on whales, ocean plastic, climate change, and marine pollution.
  • Ocean Wise Conservation delivers a joint conservation agenda with indigenous partners in the Arctic and provides conservation tools for the protection of Howe Sound’s rare glass sponge reefs and endangered rock fish. It runs renowned citizen action programs like Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup with over 80,000 volunteer participants, a plastics reduction programs, and Ocean Wise Sustainable Seafood Program reaching over 3,000 business locations across Canada.
  • Our Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is the only one of its kind in Canada. The team rescues, rehabilitates and releases nearly 150 marine mammals found in distress each year.
  • Read the Ocean Wise Annual Report HERE.

 

Q: In addition to donating, are there other ways people can support Ocean Wise?

A: Visit and support the Vancouver Aquarium! Proceeds from Vancouver Aquarium ticket sales and Gift Shop support Ocean Wise’s important research, education, marine mammal rescue and conservation work.

COVID-19 has reduced Vancouver Aquarium revenues by 85% which is in turn impacting funding for our important conservation work. Consider supporting Ocean Wise and the Vancouver Aquarium during the COVID crisis by buying one of our limited edition face masks.

 

Want to learn about beluga whales from Dr. Vergara firsthand?

Join us on our Conservation Journey: Beluga Whales adventure!Header image © Stephen Hargreaves

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