Humans' Love Affair With Beluga Whales- Are We Smothering Them?

A penny can kill a beluga whale.

I learned this not-so-trivial fact as I prepared for a recent trip to Solovetsky Island in Russia's White Sea, where a dozen or so baby belugas and their mothers frolic freely just off the shores each summer. Reading about the death of the Vancouver Aquarium's youngest beluga on June 21, I was reminded about just how fragile these magnificent, complex, adorable creatures are.

The cause of baby Nala's death? "Foreign debris," which blocked her airway.

So, some tourist's make-a-wish coin toss was not so lucky for that one-year-old beluga. Even such a tiny action by a human being can be lethal. No wonder the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists the beluga whale as "near threatened."

Then, just before I flew out of DC for Moscow in mid-July, a Vancouver park board commissioner called for a citywide vote on whether to phase out keeping belugas and other dolphins at its aquarium.

In some ways, I agree with the parks guy more than ever since my trip: The ocean really is the best place for belugas - as pristine and natural an environment as possible.

For example, take Solovetsky Island's Cape Beluga- the only place in the world to view belugas close to shore in their natural environment. For thousands of summers, these whales have come to this secluded, nearly untouched spot that reminded me of Maine's coastline. Females give birth and socialize their young, and then males arrive in mid-summer for mating, which is still going on as I type.

I spent a week there in late July, joining a small team of Russian scientists and graduate students that observes, protects and educates tourists about belugas. I'd been sent by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a major supporter of this research. My task was to help transport an underwater camera that would capture high-quality footage of belugas strutting their stuff on their own turf (or their own surf?), and to blog about it.

So, while Vancouver officials debated about whether to accept any new belugas into captivity, I hung out in a primitive observatory tower marveling at live underwater images of their wild counterparts wiggling, smiling and scratching their backs on the ocean's sandy bottom a few meters away.

After just a short time there, I felt protective of the whales. Each day, a dozen or so tourists would make the 12-kilometer trek from town via boat, on foot or in an all-terrain vehicle. Though not huge in number, these visitors seemed like the enemy to me. After all, one tourist boat during low tide, when the belugas tend to congregate, can scare these gentle creatures away until the next low tide. Even a big group of tourists standing close to shore can spook them, cutting short their socializing or mating time.

But I eased up on my mama-bear instincts as I saw one of the Russian scientists patiently climbing down from the tower to explain the wonders of belugas to each group that showed up.

In a Grinch-like revelation, I realized that tourists were not necessarily the enemy; they are potential allies. We need a critical mass of supporters who "feel the love" and understand what threatens belugas in order to maintain momentum for protecting them.

Halfway through my Cape Beluga bonanza, the Vancouver park board voted against including a November 2011 ballot question on whether to phase out cetaceans from the city's aquarium. So, the aquarium's Beluga Encounters show goes on, featuring opportunities to "feed, touch and get splashy with the belugas." Let's just hope these touchy-feely experiences don't include tossing coins, pebbles or lunch leftovers into the tank.

As for Solovetsky Island, with IFAW's support, some Moscow State University biologists will continue to seek recognition of the island as a UNESCO cultural and natural heritage; so far, only its cultural and historical significance have been recognized. At least that would provide impetus for federal, regional and local regulations on boat traffic and other potential disruptions.

Isolating belugas from humans isn't the answer. Redirecting boat traffic, reducing ocean pollutants and keeping spare change in your pocket - simple stuff like that can save lives. And possibly an entire species.