Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, a 5-star resort located 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle, is in the midst of an ambitious project to photo-identify 100 Beluga whales by summer’s end.
The Arctic Watch facility, which can be found on Somerset Island, Nunavut, Canada, on the Northwest Passage, is ideally located to undertake the study; Arctic Watch has the largest concentration of Beluga Whales on the globe.
This is the first scientific expedition attempted by Arctic Watch. Gretchen Freund, an expert in whale photo-identification and Nansen Weber, an experienced whale photographer, will take the entire season to compile the photographs, aiming their cameras at the Belugas’ heads and tails. Afterward, they will sort through all the photos and look for identifying marks, such as old scars and injuries.
Update: I got an email from Tessum Weber, Manager at the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, giving me more information on the project and its partners. Here’s what he wrote:
“We are partnering with Mystic Aquarium, to study the whales. The ultimate goal is to create a whale sanctuary and understand the impacts on the whale population. This summer, the pilot project will have 3 researchers from Mystic Aquarium participating in the research. Mystic Aquarium has the top beluga whale research scientists in the world.”
The team chose to use photo-identification because it is minimally invasive and is ideal for studying vast populations, according to the blog announcement.
“Computer-assisted photo-identification provides a powerful, inexpensive method of monitoring population movements and testing hypotheses about ecological mechanisms affecting demography. The use of photographic data enables the tracking of large numbers of individuals reliably without subjecting them to stressful capture and marking procedures,” according to the blog post.
This method differs from traditional whale-population tracking methods that require researchers to capture whales and apply ear tags, collars, or leg bands. Arctic Watch’s study is safer and less harmful, according to the blog.
Performing the study will help Arctic Watch answer a few fundamental questions, such as: “which whales return annually?” And, “How long do individual whales stay in Cunningham Inlet?”
The end goal with the study is to better understand how to protect the Beluga whales in the future.
(This article was adjusted for accuracy on 6/20/2012. The original article said Arctic Watch was located in Yellowknife, when it is actually located on Somerset Island.)