(Fifth in a series about beluga whales in captivity.)
When she was two years old, a lonely orphan beluga began making friends with fishermen and tourists in Chedabucto Bay, Nova Scotia. As more and more people came to visit her during the summer months, she became something of a celebrity. But she was also injured several times by propellers. And instead of learning to be part of a beluga family, she was learning to sound like a propeller and to mimic the human children who were calling out to her.
So, Catherine Kinsman, an expert in whale and dolphin behavior, was given approval from the Canadian government to watch over Wilma and other orphan belugas, and to research and minimize the dangers they were facing. Michael Mountain talked with her about her work with Wilma and other solitary belugas.
Michael Mountain: Tell us about Wilma.
Catherine Kinsman: Wilma was an orphan beluga whale who had been in the bay trying to make friends with fishermen and tourist boats for five years. And for all kinds of reasons, this really wasn’t a great situation. It was bad enough that she’d been injured several times by the propellers on the boats. But the other thing was that the whole nature of the relationship did not serve her psychological and emotional well-being, either.
MM: You mean how she was interacting with the people.
CK: Yes, belugas are highly social and cultural beings. There can be hundreds of them in their big extended families, and just like human children, they learn from their mothers and other pod mates how to communicate with each other and with their families and how to live as a beluga.
MM: And so, what Wilma was learning was how to live among a group of boats instead of belugas.
CK: Exactly. We would see people exploiting the deep need these animals have for social interaction and for acoustic stimulation. As solitary orphans, they’re missing all the sounds of their families and all the socialization and communication with other beluga whales. And they find themselves in the relative silence of the waters. They are very chatty animals, and in their families there can be constant chatter. And with their big brains that are designed for communication, taking in acoustic information and making sense of it, and then interacting with their environment, they begin to seek out anything that will fill that emptiness – that void.
Alone in the ocean, Wilma had no beluga friends whistling or responding to her calls, and so she gravitated to the sound of boats and propellers and people calling out to her. The trouble was that some people were exploiting her needs by using their boat motors to attract her. Solitary beluga whales like her will come right up to the boat motors and place their rostrums – their noses – just within inches of a propeller. And then they’ll follow the boat, so obviously if there’s any abrupt change in direction or speed, the whale can get injured.
Since I started working with these solitary whales, back in 1998, there have been at least 25 individual belugas who have become stray for whatever reason and are separated far from their natal group.
MM: What other problems were you seeing?
CK: People often misunderstood her behavior. They got in the water to swim with her, even trying to ride her. And they were offering her food.
Alone in the ocean, Wilma had no beluga friends whistling or responding to her calls, and so she gravitated to the sound of boats and propellers and people calling out to her.
But one thing we learned was that Wilma wasn’t the slightest bit interested in the food. What she wanted was the interaction and companionship – like she’d have had with her family. She wanted the eye contact and the physical contact. She liked being touched, and even let people put their hands in her mouth. And people took advantage of this and actually started to alter her behavior.
These are free-ranging wild animals, but the human activity they encountered was confusingly chaotic and inconsistent, often creating frustration for the whale. Too often, well-intentioned but misinformed people treated orphan belugas with the same kind of circus mindset that you see in captivity, which is totally inappropriate for wild whales. Instead of what these belugas would be learning from their real families, they learned behaviors in response to these surrogate human families.
We met people who would be talking about them in trainer-speak and behaving that way as well. They’d been trying to control the whales and manipulate their behavior for their own entertainment. Wilma was inundated by thousands of tourists. She was just this one little whale out there by herself with people vying for her attention. Another sad thing was that people would think Wilma was playing when sometimes she was really warning them she wasn’t pleased with what was happening.
The years she spent in close contact with people had another unusual effect. She seemed to be mimicking the sounds of the boats. She was making two vocalizations that sounded like propellers: first the “vroom” of a motor, and then the high-pitched hydraulic whine of an engine being lifted out of the water or being lowered into it. And then there were so many people, especially children, calling out “Wilma” in a sing-song voice that she appeared to develop a vocalization that was like the vowel sounds of “Wilma” – a kind of “iii-aaa.”
MM: How do these orphans get separated from their families in the first place?
CK: We don’t know the exact reasons, but it’s usually when they’re two years old or less and still very much in their development stages. Maybe they were traveling with their mother or another adult in winter when they need to move further out to find food. And then through the movement of ice, they can get separated and they’re too far away to travel under the ice to the next breathing space.
People would think Wilma was playing when sometimes she actually was warning them she wasn’t pleased with what was happening.
Another possibility could be the noise of ships. The youngsters might get out of acoustic range because there’s a curtain of sound from the ships between them and the adults. And then maybe they find themselves on the other side of a peninsula and then they’re completely out of range. They travel in the wrong direction and aren’t experienced enough yet to know their way home.
MM: How many of these orphans have you been involved with?
CK: We and other researchers have documented 25 individuals who became sociable and all of them were young, which is a consistent trend. The solitary belugas we used to see were almost always adults, who would know how to get home. The mature whales don’t tend to approach boats so much, but nearly all the lost juveniles that are reported develop some degree of attraction to human activity.
MM: Is Wilma still around?
CK: No. When we came back after one winter, she was no longer there. During the winter, there’s far less boat activity, and belugas have to spend more time foraging. So, typically in the winter months they are less sociable and we often lose track of them for a few months. And one year when we lost track of her, we never saw her again. It was the same with several of the others.
MM: How would you recognize her?
CK: Unfortunately, it’s mostly from the scars from their injuries. Some organizations are doing biopsies, and we’ve occasionally helped them with that. But we don’t know where Wilma is now. We would of course like to think she found her own family, but even though she bears some unmistakable scars, she has not been seen.
She was the first orphan in that whole area, and we thought, when she disappeared, that this kind of thing wouldn’t happen again – at least not for several years. But every year since then there have been between one and four orphan belugas on the east coast of Canada.
MM: Have any of them been able to connect again with their own family?
CK: Last year there was a pair of very young belugas, two-year-olds, who’d gone astray togethet and had become sociable with people and were following boats, including a ferry boat. But they eventually disappeared from where the St. Lawrence researchers were observing them, and one of them was seen a few weeks later back in the company of a normal pod of females and juveniles. That was very exciting for us.
MM: There are people in the captivity industry who might say that orphan belugas would be safer in captivity and that they’d have a better chance there.
CK: A better chance at what? The Georgia Aquarium is* (see note at bottom) looking to bring in 18 healthy, wild-caught beluga whales. The likelihood of them living and breeding successfully and contributing to a wild population is a plan that is just full of holes. By their own admission, long-term captive breeding of belugas is a failed experiment.
The whales have shown me that every one of them is a conscious, aware individual, worthy of respect.
In any case, I have a lot of trouble accepting the captivity industry has or will contribute in a meaningful way, to actual conservation. Has there been one beluga whale returned to the wild? They’ve spent years preparing for this capture and more than $2 million. Imagine if that kind of money were to be spent on research efforts to learn from and support the survival and thriving of solitary belugas who are wild and healthy but simply out of their normal range. Imagine the inroads we could make into conservation, supporting the lives of free-roaming populations in the wild.
It’s really time for us to move into a new paradigm in our relationship with wildlife, including solitary beluga whales. We should be letting go of what doesn’t work and exploring what we’re actually being shown by these whales in terms of their intelligence, sociability and what they need and what we can learn from them in the wild so we can support them there.
MM: What have you learned the most from your work in the ocean?
CK: I’ve learned to have some humility in the presence of these amazing animals. I don’t know everything about them, and there’s so much we humans don’t know. We make far too many assumptions. What I do understand is that the whales have shown me that every one of them is a conscious, aware individual, worthy of respect. We need to start looking at every animal who exists with that level of appreciation for what they’re contributing to the world as a whole.
* Note: This interview was conducted in 2012, when the Georgia Aquarium was seeking a permit to import beluga whales who had been captured off the coast of Russia.
Photo at top by A.Lyskin – IFAW.