By Saima May Sidik, a freelance science journalist based in Somerville, Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Hakai Magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, Nature, and elsewhere. Originally published at Undark.
When Roswell Schaeffer Sr. was 8 years old, his father decided it was about time he started learning to hunt beluga whales. Schaeffer was an Iñupiaq kid growing up in Kotzebue, a small city in northwest Alaska, where a healthy store of beluga meat was part of making it through the winter. Each summer, thousands of these small white whales migrated to Kotzebue Sound, and hunts were an annual tradition. Whale skin and blubber, or muktuk, was prized, not only as a form of sustenance and a trading commodity, but also because of the spiritual value of sharing the catch with the community.
Now, nearly seven decades later, Schaeffer is one of only a few hunters who still spends the late weeks of spring, just after the ice has melted, on Kotzebue Sound, waiting for belugas to arrive. Many people have switched to hunting bearded seals, partly out of necessity: There simply aren’t enough belugas to sustain the community anymore.
In the 1980s, Kotzebue Sound’s beluga population began to dwindle, from thousands to hundreds, and then to the dozens or fewer that visit the region now. Kotzebue is not alone. Although some stocks are healthy, beluga numbers have fallen off in around a half-dozen regions over the last 50 years. Decades ago, hunting, commercial whaling, and other influences pushed the whales toward the brink. Now, even after hunting has ceased in some places, stresses such as climate change, increased ship traffic, and chemical pollutants are a gathering storm that threatens to finish the job.
But some scientists think that understanding the way the whales respond to these stresses could end up being as important as understanding the stresses themselves. Belugas, like chimpanzees, birds, humans, and many other animals, create cultures by passing knowledge and customs from one generation to the next. With climate change and other human activities reshaping the world at an alarming rate, belugas will likely have to rely on innovative cultural practices to adapt — genetic adaptation is simply too slow to keep up.
Cultural practices can become rote, however, and just like humans, other animals can hold onto traditions long after they’ve stopped making sense. One key question, according to Greg O’Corry-Crowe, a behavioral ecologist at Florida Atlantic University, is: Will culture carry the whales through?
“When the change is so seismic, maybe, and so rapid, you’re trying to look for the innovators and the pioneers among the social conservatives,” O’Corry-Crowe said. At the same time, Indigenous people like Schaeffer are facing their own quandary. Continuing to hunt belugas may hurt the whales’ chance of rebounding, but if Indigenous groups give up the practice, they could lose knowledge that’s helped sustain them in the Arctic for thousands of years.
Philosophers and scientists have long suggested that animals can learn. But even in the early 2000s, scientists debated the idea that animals accumulate knowledge over generations. One animal that helped popularize that notion is the killer whale.
Toward the end of the 20th century, scientists realized that killer whales living off the west coast of North America, between Puget Sound and Vancouver, had separated into communities with unique ways and customs. Vocalizations differed, for example. “It’s like some people speak English, some people speak French,” said Hal Whitehead, a biologist who specializes in social structures at Dalhousie University. Pods from the southern end of the range practiced a greeting ceremony, lining up opposite each other and bobbing their heads; those from the north did not. The northern whales, on the other hand, liked to rub their bodies against beaches, presumably to remove dead skin.
Some cultural practices, like which language whales speak, may not have much impact on survival. But others, like techniques for finding food, can be critical. When killer whales go through lean times, scientists can see long-term knowledge at play: Killer whales move in pods, and when food gets scarce, the oldest females move to the front. They’re likely using knowledge from times when conditions were similar — possibly decades earlier — to show younger whales where to find prey. “It’s called the grandmother hypothesis,” said Sam Ellis, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Exeter. He and his colleagues have shown that killer whales with living grandmothers are more likely to survive than those without.
Cultural adaptations have also helped species like belugas and killer whales survive, said O’Corry-Crowe, and behaviors can develop much faster than genes can be revamped. To cope with warming waters, belugas could learn to move to regions that are still cold enough for their bodies (as long as such regions still exist). Otherwise, they may need to evolve to dissipate heat more efficiently — a process that would take at least a few generations and likely much longer. When resources are patchy, “it’s important to remember where they are, and to pass that knowledge on,” he said. But old practices can pose a problem if they don’t allow the group to adapt to new circumstances. When the world changes quickly, “suddenly, you’re let down,” Ellis said.
Whitehead uses the belugas of Hudson Bay, in northern Canada, as an example. At least three populations of belugas migrate to Hudson Bay in the summer, and Whitehead focuses on two: One that goes to the eastern side and one to the western side. Which side a whale goes to is a matter of family tradition that baby belugas learn from their mothers. Decades ago, commercial whalers overharvested the eastern population. Yet new generations of eastern belugas kept following their mothers to that more dangerous side of the bay. The eastern population became dangerously depleted while the western whales thrived.
Over the last few years, the quick pace of environmental change has sparked a string of scientific publications emphasizing the importance of animal culture for conservation. Some conservation groups have begun considering cultural traits as worthy of conservation as genetic signatures. The idea, O’Corry-Crowe said, is that maintaining diversity of animal knowledge optimizes opportunities for animals to figure out how to address new challenges, just as maintaining genetic diversity maximizes their opportunities to evolve new physical characteristics.
When a pocket of animals with specialized knowledge is lost, “it’s not like it’s immediately replaced. And so you start to blink out unique cultures,” he said. “And that is a loss of adaptive potential going forward.”
The belugas of Cook Inlet, Alaska, are among those that are in danger of blinking out. That’s why, one sunny afternoon in September 2022, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries biologist Verena Gill climbed into a roughly 7-foot-tall beluga costume, adorned with a scarf bearing the name Betty. Hiking up Betty’s tail, Gill waddled to the side of Seward Highway in Anchorage, Alaska, where she waved her flippers at passing motorists to generate support for the whales.
Cook Inlet reaches in from Alaska’s southern coast like an arm terminating in two talons that wrap around Anchorage, and it’s been a key area in the push to save belugas. Unlike some populations, Cook Inlet’s belugas do not undergo a widespread migration. Rather, they stay in the inlet, where they comprise a genetically distinct population. Over-harvesting — from commercial, sport, and subsistence hunting — almost certainly precipitated the decline of Cook Inlet’s belugas, from more than a thousand to around 279 that live there today.
In the early 2000s, the plight of the whales spurred action: The area’s Indigenous groups gave up hunting in 2005. And yet, the whales’ numbers continue to slowly drop. In 2008, the Cook Inlet belugas were listed as endangered. A multitude of threats, including noise pollution, chemical pollution, climate change, and prey declines, have likely swamped any benefit of curtailing hunting, and protections extended to the whales by the Endangered Species Act have not been sufficient. “It’s sort-of death by a thousand cuts,” said Gill.
Betty Beluga comes out once a year to help. Locals do, too: For one day each September, Gill and other NOAA Fisheries scientists, volunteers from partner organizations, and members of the public descend on 14 sites in and around Anchorage to see how many belugas they can find. The data they generate could inform research on long-term trends, but the event mostly serves to engage the public in the beluga recovery effort.
The Seward Highway turnoff, called Windy Corner, was the last of five monitoring locations that Gill visited during this year’s beluga count. Passing drivers honked and waved as Gill wrapped up a long string of photo ops with kids, social media appearances — including a livestream from inside the Betty Beluga suit — and mimicking the caws, squeaks, and whistles belugas use to communicate for a local TV news story. The popularity of this event, and other outreach efforts, are part of what gives Gill hope that Cook Inlet’s belugas will recover. When the population was listed as endangered, local stakeholders got angsty about how the listing would affect the area, according to Gill. “It just seemed like a lot of anger and worry, and there wasn’t a love for belugas like there is now,” she recalled. Fourteen years later, many of these same groups partner with NOAA Fisheries in beluga recovery efforts.
But so far, love hasn’t been enough to save the belugas. Worse still, scientists have been unable to pinpoint a particular threat that’s causing them to keep declining, which Gill said makes her “a little despondent.”
She wonders if cultural fragmentation is a missing piece in the puzzle. Cook Inlet’s extreme tides can easily trap belugas on mudflats if the whales don’t know exactly when and where the water level is going to drop. “Maybe this knowledge is not getting passed on,” she said. There’s some evidence she may be right: Jill Seymour, the Cook Inlet beluga recovery coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, pointed out that belugas are now occupying a smaller portion of Cook Inlet than they once did. Seymour thinks this could mean the whales have lost knowledge of how to use other portions, whereas Gill thinks this may be the remaining whales’ attempt to stick together and rebuild a social group.
Belugas are following a similar trend off the coast of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, said conservation marine biologist Kit Kovacs. Genetics show that Svalbard belugas used to mix with those from the southern Barents Sea, which lies between Svalbard and Scandinavia. But these days, Svalbard’s belugas stick close to the archipelago. One explanation is that when elders in the Svalbard beluga community died, migration routes went with them. “When you lose those matriarchal animals and patriarchal animals, with knowledge of where to go and how to do business, you’re just stuck with whatever knowledge is left,” Kovacs said.
There are some signs that belugas are inventing new cultural practices, and perhaps this mindset will help them survive. When O’Corry-Crowe and his colleagues conduct wide genetic surveys, they sometimes come across whales outside their normal range “and go, wait now, who the heck are these guys?” It seems the whales are exploring. Similarly, Kovacs thinks Svalbard’s belugas might be varying their diets as melting glaciers make their favorite Arctic cod harder to catch.
In Anchorage, the beluga count volunteers were packing up at Windy Corner when a pod of about a half dozen belugas emerged offshore from the eastern edge of the turnoff. As they surfaced for air and then descended again, they appeared to roll through the water like oversized porcelain bowling balls. “They’re not feeding, they’re just travelling,” Gill said. A few minutes later, they were gone.
The continued decline of Cook Inlet’s belugas angers some Indigenous people, who feel that others in the area have not reciprocated the sacrifice they made when they gave up hunting. According to Justin Trenton, the environmental coordinator for the Native Village of Tyonek and a member of the Tebughna Tribe, elders in his community “believe that we’re the only ones that have actually stopped completely affecting them.” After almost 20 years without hunting belugas, everyone who remembers how is starting to age. Trenton worries that the knowledge will be lost.
Up the coast from Anchorage, Kotzebue’s hunters, like Roswell Schaeffer Sr., now face a similar dilemma: Should they also stop hunting belugas? A recent genetic study authored by O’Corry-Crowe and his colleagues shows that a genetically distinct population of belugas lived in Kotzebue Sound before their numbers declined. The authors wrote that the remnants of this group deserve legal protections. Roderick Hobbs, a NOAA Fisheries marine biologist who worked with Cook Inlet belugas before he retired, said he agrees.
In 2016, Indigenous members of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee — a group of tribal delegates, scientists, government officials, and others — drafted a plan aimed at encouraging belugas to return to Kotzebue. The plan calls for limiting hunting during the early part of the summer, for example, when remnants of the original Kotzebue stock are most likely to visit nearby waters. It permits more leniency during the late summer, when belugas from the healthy Beaufort Sea stock are known to migrate past. “I think it was an outstanding approach,” said Kathryn Frost, a founding non-Indigenous member of the committee and an author on the recent genetic study. But right now the plan is voluntary, she added, and “how you get people to follow the plan is a completely different issue.”
Percy Ballot Sr., a subsistence hunter from Buckland, Alaska, and one of the plan’s architects, said he and many hunters in his area are abiding by the guidelines, even though they limit hunting opportunities that were few to begin with. Beluga hunts from years past — with their collaborative spirit and the joyous feasts that followed — are some of Ballot’s most cherished memories, but, nevertheless he’s stopped hunting belugas. “You gotta walk the talk, I guess is probably the best way to put it.”
Not everyone thinks giving up hunting is worth the slim chance that belugas will return. If Kotzebue’s belugas were genetically isolated from neighboring populations — as Cook Inlet’s belugas are — then “it would be a clear cut story,” said Alex Whiting, the environmental program director for the Native Village of Kotzebue and an author on the recent genetic study. But genetic analysis suggests that the remnants of the original Kotzebue belugas have hybridized with other stocks. Because of their slow generation time, rebuilding Kotzebue’s belugas could take decades if not longer, and the resulting population would likely differ from the original stock that scientists set out to save. “If you’re asking people to sacrifice a part of that cultural identity for some unknown benefit — some theorized benefit — I mean, it’s a pretty hard sell,” Whiting said.
In Schaeffer’s eyes, changes in the natural world are making the decision for his tribe. As opportunities to hunt belugas become scarce, young people are losing interest and so their infrequent attempts are clumsy at best. “They get out in a boat, make a lot of noise, and that’s about it,” he said. It’s a change that he said, “bothers the hell out of me. Because the knowledge is being lost — and rapidly.”