National Geographic wildlife photographer Nansen Weber has been going to Cunningham Inlet by Canada’s Somerset Island in the high Arctic with his cameras for 16 years. Every summer thousands of beluga whales join him for an amazing spectacle in the shallow inlet. For about a month, the beluga whales gather for what is a very social time as well as molting period and nursery time for newborns. The Cunningham River is a northerly version of the Churchill and surrounding estuaries in the southern Hudson Bay in that its’ temperatures average eight degrees F warmer than the surrounding ocean waters. The warmer water is a welcome respite for the whales and facilitates the behavior mentioned.
Weber and the whales seem to coexist in the inlet with the belugas approaching him closely as if they remember him from the year before. The drone footage of the whales, polar bears, and the incredible rugged landscape lends perspective to the massive wild region that is largely unspoiled.
That notion could be changing however with climate change and federal policy allowing research and transport throughout the Arctic. Shipping channels around the Northwest Passage are becoming more accessible with ice reduction due to warming temperatures. This will allow large ships in the region and they, with all the noise they produce, will undoubtedly have an affect on the animals echolocation faculties.
“This might be the only place on Earth you can enjoy the beluga whales like this that is still wild like it’s been for the last 500 years, but maybe it’s going to be changing. Just in my lifetime of being in the Arctic for 20 years, I’ve seen climate change. There’s new birds that are migrating up north that I haven’t seen before, there’s mosquitoes now where there shouldn’t be mosquitoes, the ice patterns and weather patterns are all weird. It’s kind of a dilemma that’s always there in the back of your head while you’re enjoying the beluga whale spectacle in front of you,” Weber says.
Weber’s videos and photos shed light on how ship traffic and resulting noise pollution may alter the beluga whale population’s migratory routes. “There has been scientific evidence that the ship traffic—the sonar—affects the communication between the belugas, so that could definitely be a problem for the future for our belugas in Cunningham Inlet.”
All of the Arctic region and all of its inhabitants will be affected with changing climate. “It’s not only about the beluga whales. I mean, we have polar bears, there’s narwhals and bowheads along the Northwest Passage, arctic char that run in the rivers. Inland you have the musk ox, the caribou that graze, all the migratory birds that fly up every summer to enjoy the short arctic summer, the snowy owls, the falcons. It’s just a huge ecosystem that’s all tied together,” states Weber.