Russian Icebreaker On Race to Rescue Whales : Discovery News
he Arctic can be an unforgiving realm, and even its most adept inhabitants at times struggle with the potentially fatal obstacles it places in front of them.
The beluga is a case in point. Like other toothed whales, it uses echolocation, or sonar, to help find its way around; the echolocation of a beluga, however, seems to be particularly finely tuned and adept at finding even the narrowest of cracks and leads in the ice that forms on the sea surface.
Sometimes, however, even that ability is outmatched by the challenges of an Arctic winter. On occasion, ice cover may be so extensive that all the belugas in the area are forced to use the nearest available patch of open water, known as a polynya; as a result, that patch of water can seem positively inundated with bobbing white heads and the exhalation of whale breath. In such cases, the best scenario for the belugas is that other leads open up and they can find their way to food and safety; the worst scenario is that even this oasis either freezes over or becomes a magnet for polar bears, which have been known to take advantage of such circumstances to engage in a kind of feeding frenzy, reaching in and hauling trapped belugas on to the ice.
It is uncertain how often this may happen, but given the extent and hostility of the Arctic, it can be assumed to be not infrequent; however, humans are rarely around to see it happen. There are some records: In Disko Bay, Greenland, at least 1,000 belugas were trapped in 1915, and up to 3,000 in 1955. In 1984, some 3,000 belugas were trapped in Senyavina Strait, off the Bering Sea in late December. A Russian icebreaker, the Moskva, was able to clear a channel through 12-foot thick ice to free the whales in late February. Roughly 2,000 whales escaped, and slightly more than 500 were taken by Native hunters.