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Wildlife

Watch Manitoba beluga whales frolic — for science

Live underwater webcam captures the antics of the lovable whales, but also provides important insight into beluga biology

  • Aug 16, 2016
  • 341 words
  • 2 minutes
A screenshot from Explore.org and Polar Bears International's live underwater beluga webcam Expand Image
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If your boss gives you a hard time for slacking off while watching this adorable live stream of beluga whales frolicking in Hudson Bay, tell them you’re actually contributing to scientific research.

The Beluga Boat Cam, which has been gathering and streaming footage of beluga whales at their summer breeding grounds in Churchill, Man. since July 15, is primarily an educational and promotional tool offered by Churchill tour operator Frontiers North Adventures in conjunction with Explore.org and Polar Bears International. But Explore’s “snapshot” feature, which allows viewers of its various live streams to freeze a frame of the action, is proving to be a boon to beluga researchers like Dr. Stephen Petersen.

Petersen, the head of conservation and research at Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo, is hoping to understand how climate change may be affecting beluga whales in northern Manitoba. He visited Churchill in July and spent time studying the beluga from above the water — but the underwater cam, which attracts upwards of 2,000 viewers per day, offers deeper (pun intended) insight into the animals’ biology and behaviour. 

Beluga fans from around the world have been using the snapshot feature to keep track of newborn calves and distinctive markings, such as scars, that can be used to identify and track individual whales. Petersen has also asked viewers to take snapshots when the whales swim upside down, which is the only way to determine their sex. By the time the cam goes offline for the season on August 21, Petersen hopes to have a treasure trove of images to pore over. 

“As far as I know, there’s no other investigation of beluga from under the water on this scale,” Petersen told CBC Manitoba

The cam, which is attached to Frontiers North interpreter Hayley Shephard’s Zodiac boat, is live for about four hours every day. Highlight reels are available for viewing during off hours. Shephard posts her daily schedule in the comments below the stream so viewers know exactly when to tune in for new footage. 

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