The day a Russian boat played classic to save beluga whales

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In 1985, the crew of a Russian icebreaker played music to attract beluga whales in their wake. Despite appearances, they only wanted them good.

Trapped under the ice

We are in 1985, in December. A Chukchi hunter spots a group of beluga whales (nearly 3000 individuals) in the distance. Enthusiastic, he runs to warn the others. At that time, these “white whales” were indeed the main source of food for the community. Together, they converge on the site, and realize the extent of the problem.

The beluga whales had evidently hunted a large school of cod in the Senyavin Strait, which separates Arakamchechen Island from the Chukchi Peninsula in the most northeastern corner of the Soviet Union. To locate you, we are about 200 km from Alaska.

Unfortunately, an easterly wind had picked up, blocking the narrow strait with ice nearly four meters thick and nearly four kilometers long, leaving the animals only small areas of open water for them. allow them to breathe.

Belugas are adapted to northern seas, but they are able to cover such a distance without regaining some oxygen. And with few holes for so many individuals, it quickly became clear that without human intervention, all of these animals would die of asphyxiation.

Credits: Claude Robillard / Flickr

Moskva to the rescue

The fate of the belugas was soon reported by regional newspapers and by authorities in the Soviet Far East. Helicopters and experts are then dispatched to the scene to monitor the scene. For their part, some inhabitants of the neighboring colony of Yanrakynnot hasten to bring frozen fish to feed the animals, while others maintain air holes as best they can by digging in the ice.

However, with winter setting in and expected conditions worsening, these actions are only temporary.

Luckily, Russia has just bought a Finnish icebreaker – the Moskva – the largest and most powerful of its kind at the time, allowing freighters to cross the Bering Strait, the waterway that separates Siberia. and Alaska. Very quickly, the authorities turn to the boat and plan a rescue mission.

But as the icebreaker arrives, its captain, Anatoly M. Kovalenko, feels the situation is too dangerous and desperate. He then decides to withdraw. The belugas, for their part, had already begun to perish. While all seems lost, the crew, touched by the fate of the animals, decide that it is necessary to act anyway. He then convinces his captain. And the Moskva began to break the ice.

The New York Times article, published in March 1985. Credits: New York Times

What better bait than music

It took several days for the boat to try to reach the belugas. Unfortunately, all the animals are tired and traumatized by the arrival of the ship. How to convince them to follow the crew in their wake before the ice closes behind them? A crew member makes an unusual suggestion: let’s play music. Indeed, most cetaceans react to music.

Running out of options, the Moskva activates its loudspeaker and plays several music across the frozen landscape. Finally, the classic turns out to be the most effective lure, leading curious belugas to approach the boat. The Moskva then begins its voyage towards the open waters of the ocean, and very quickly the animals understand the intentions of the crew. They will join the ocean a few days later.

On that day, it is believed that 2,000 animals finally returned to the high seas at the end of February.

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