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Whales full of surprises

Beluga research confirms elders' suspicions

James Hrynyshyn
Northern News Services

Vancouver (Jan 07/02) - Canadian and Greenlandic scientists say the beluga whales of Cumberland Sound don't get around as much as once thought.

Though the whales have been studied for much of the past 30 years, most scientists believed they migrated in and out of the sound each year, spending their winters somewhere else in the Eastern Arctic.

The latest results of a satellite-tagging study, however, show they stick around the year through.

"We thought they migrated completely out of it and may have been hunted (during the winter)," said Pierre Rich-ard, a biologist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Instead, he told a scientific conference in Vancouver last month, they appear to represent a non-migratory population.

In the late summer of 2000, Richard and his colleagues at DFO and the Greenland Nature Institute in Nuuk attached satellite-linked data recorders to the dorsal ridges of several belugas, a process that Richard compared with having one's ear pierced.

The Panniqtuuq Hunters and Trappers Association and the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board were also involved.

The recorders collected data on how deep the whales dove and how long they spent underwater. They also beamed each whale's location to a satellite, giving the research team precise information on where the whales travelled for several months.

It turns out the whales, which spend the spring and summer in the northern reaches of Cumberland Sound near Pannituuq, go no further than the eastern-most waters of the sound in the winter.

"The results we got are essentially what the elders were talking about," said Richard, adding that the project was designed with the help of Peter Kilabuk's 1998 traditional knowledge study.

Only half asleep

Meanwhile, in Russia, captive belugas are giving scientists a glimpse of the mysterious world of sleeping whales.

Biologists have long known that dolphins avoid drowning and stay out of trouble while they sleep by resting only half of their brain at a time.

But until now, scientists had no idea how widespread the behaviour, which involves keeping one hemisphere of the brain alert, and one eye open, is among whales in general.

What Oleg Lyamin and his team at the Utrish Dolphinarium in Moscow discovered suggests all whales sleep the same way.

Lyamin told participants at the Vancouver conference that his recordings for beluga brainwaves prove they keep one half of their brain awake at all times. This is likely because their breathing patterns are not voluntary -- each breath requires a conscious decision -- and they need to keep an eye on their aquatic surroundings.

He said the existence of this sleep pattern in both dolphins and distantly-related belugas, along with observations of one-eye dormancy in other whales, provides strong evidence for similar behaviour in all species of whales.