Russian Cetacean Habitat Project

The Arctic waters of the Bering Sea off Russia are the location of the largest marine protected area in Russia: the Commander Islands State Biosphere Reserve, known locally as Komandorskiy Zapovednik. The Russian Cetacean Habitat Project was initiated in 2009 to study the marine mammals found here, including orcas, humpbacks and Baird's beaked whales.

Map showing locations of WDC projects in the North Pacific

The Commander Islands were discovered on the Vitus Bering expedition in 1741. Shipwrecked for a winter on the main Bering Island, a third of the crew and Commander Bering himself died of scurvy and are buried here. The ship naturalist Georg Steller — who convinced the surviving expedition members to eat local plants and seaweed, along with sea otters and sea cows — reported many new species including a sea lion, sea eagle and the sea cow which bear his name.

The Steller’s sea cow went extinct due to hunting by 1768 and the other animals suffered declines, too. Still, today, the waters around the Commander Islands are full of many species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, including humpback, minke, and Baird’s beaked whales, orcas, and Dall’s porpoises, as well as numerous species of pinnipeds and sea birds. Humpback whales appear to be recovering from whaling in Russian waters and are returning every year in greater numbers. There are also rare sightings of fin whales and North Pacific right whales, both endangered and the latter, one of the world’s most endangered whales.

Our Russian Cetacean Habitat Project has found an ideal land-based lookout on Bering Island close to deep water. There is easy access to passing orcas, summer resident feeding humpback whales, and deep-diving Baird’s beaked whales.

Baird's beaked whale

The team has started the first photo-ID catalogue for Baird’s beaked whales with more than 130 individuals identified to date and is starting to learn about the social behaviour, habits and potential problems this species faces. The photographs have revealed whales with scars from driftnets and cookie cutter sharks (indicating travel to warmer waters) and one whale had a harpoon wound. The IUCN RedList considers this species Data Deficient, yet Japanese whalers have hunted as many as 300 whales in one year with current rates of about 60 killed per year mainly off Hokkaido.

 Also notable in these waters, our team has found three white orcas, including an all white male named Iceberg who became something of a media star in 2012. He and his fish-eating pod have only been seen twice and not since 2010.

Iceberg - white orca

We work closely with the Commander Islands Biosphere Reserve, exchanging sightings, data, management advice, and equipment while contributing to the educational and effective management mandate of the Reserve. The other key objective of our project is to define the critical habitat of different whale species in the waters of the Russian Far East. Critical habitat refers to those parts of a cetacean’s range, either a whole species or a particular population of that species, that are essential for day-to-day survival, as well as for maintaining a healthy population growth rate.

Baird's beaked whale

It is important to have large protected areas such as the waters of the Commander Islands reserve where no commercial fishing, hydrocarbon exploration or other industrial activity occurs. We are working to learn as much as we can and to help keep this area healthy. We hope to identify and help create a network of highly protected whale habitat zones that could become a model for other marine protected areas to be designated in the future in Russian waters. Russia has had a strong tradition of creating and maintaining nature reserves, or zapovedniks, on land, but — except for the Commander Islands reserve — it has yet to begin matching that with significant large marine protected areas.