Beluga whales swimming (© AP Images)
(© AP Images)

Researchers are turning to the internet — and crowdsourcing technology — to learn the behavior of thousands of beluga whales that migrate to Canada’s Hudson Bay every year.

The research is aided by an underwater webcam created by the Montana-based Polar Bears International and, a project of the Annenberg Foundation in California.

The white whales, which resemble oversized dolphins, nuzzle and clown for the camera, which is attached to a boat. The whales feel the lens with their teeth and blow bubbles at it.

Sometimes the whales swim upside down for a better view of the camera. That’s what Stephen Petersen, head of conservation and research for Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo, and his wife, biologist Meg Hainstock, are looking for. Only when the whales turn upside down can the researchers determine their sex, which they need as they study the animals’ social structure and behavior.

The webcam’s viewers across the globe are helping too.

The webcam creators included a “snapshot” feature that allows viewers to take still shots of the feed. Petersen and Hainstock hope the result will be a trove of photographs of individual whales that will help them catalog the population as they try to answer questions about the animals’ behavior.

For example, why do certain whales of a similar age and sex consistently gather at certain times or locations? What function do Hudson Bay’s estuaries serve for these animals?

“As far as I know, there’s no other investigation of beluga from under the water on this scale,” Petersen said. “A lot of the stuff that’s been done before is from observers on top of the water. It doesn’t really give us a good sense — belugas don’t spend a lot of time on top of the water.”

Viewers are instructed on how to identify males from females, and are then asked to take snapshots when the whales flip over and their sex is in view of the camera. The photographs are tagged male or female and uploaded to a database that will help identify individual whales and their locations.

Operators switched on the cameras July 15 and have since averaged about 2,500 viewers a day, according to spokesman Mike Gasbara.

Understanding the beluga whales is important because their ecosystem soon may be altered by the effects of climate change, Gasbara said. Less Arctic ice could bring threats to the beluga in the form of killer whales and increased boat traffic and pollution, he said. and Polar Bears International have used similar crowdsourcing technology to monitor polar bears’ annual migration in Hudson Bay. Researchers hope years of viewers taking snapshots will provide them with images that can help assess the bears’ health and reproductive rates.