Operation Beluga — or how a Soviet ice breaker played music to whales to save them from starving

The Soviet Union (USSR) is a thing most people today know only from memory or history books. And many parts of its history are unsavory, to say the least. But Operation Beluga (‘Belukha’ in Russian) isn’t one of those. Operation Beluga involved them sending an ice-breaker, and blasting classical music at full volume, in order to save a pack of thousands of whales that were iced-in in the Chukchi Peninsula.

A beluga whale at the Oceanografic de Valencia, Spain. Image credits Salva Barbera via Flickr.

In 1959, the Finish company Wärtsilä delivered the ice-breaker Moskva to the USSR. The contract for this ship was signed three years prior, and as part of its stipulations, the ship was equipped with one of the most powerful diesel-electric engines at the time. It would go on to help hundreds of ships navigate the (iced-over) Northern Sea Route, which spans from Murmansk to Vladivostok, cutting the travel time down to an average of 10 days — which was quite fast for the day. Moskva’s powerful engines allowed it to break through thicker ice than its peers at the time, which effectively extended the shipping season possible along this route.

Crowned with shipping glory, the Moskva was later stationed in Vladivostok and sent to escort ships along the eastern stretches of the Northern Sea Route. But as fate would have it, this would not be the last time we heard of the Moskva’s adventures — ‘we’ here meaning us, as well as beluga whales.

Iced in, iced out

Every good heroic story needs someone in need, and in around December 1984, thousands of such someones were found.

Along the frigid landscape of the Chukchi Peninsula (this is the bit of Russia that’s across the pond from Alaska) lives the Chukchi or Chukchee, an indigenous people closely related to the original inhabitants of the Americas. Their traditions and lifestyle hadn’t changed much until 1920 when the Soviet government organized (state-run) schools and industries in the area. Even after this point the Chukchi relied heavily on local wildlife for food and provided raw materials for some of those newly-minted industries in the form of fishing, hunting of marine mammals, or reindeer herding. Subsistence hunting (i.e. for the purpose of obtaining food) is still practiced by the Chukchi to this day, although it’s greatly reduced in scope.

In late December 1984, a Chukchi hunter or hunting party — it’s not known exactly how many people were present at that point — happened upon the motherlode of prey: roughly 3,000 beluga whales trapped in the frozen waters of the peninsula’s Senyavin Strait. The hunter realized they were trapped because the whales (a prime local source of food) were flocking around small pools of open water dotting the strait, desperate to catch a breath of air.

Faced with such a sight, those present were likely very excited at the prospect of easily-captured meat. As they inched closer, however, the magnitude of what they were actually seeing started to sink in: the straight hold around 3,000 whales.

To this day, we’re still not sure how they got there, especially in such huge numbers. One running theory is that the whales — either as a whole or as several smaller groups — chased after prey, most likely a bank of cod, right into the straight. Powerful winds then filled the straight with chunks of drift ice up to 12 ft (4 meters) thick. This was way too strong for the whales to break through, leaving only small openings between the chunks of ice for the whales to breathe through. Now, the whales could swim under this ice to freedom, but the distance was too long for them to make the trip on a single breath of air — which was a risky endeavor. So, they stayed put.

Needless to say, finding thousands of whales stranded in a straight is the kind of thing you tend to report to authorities, which the hunter did. Experts and helicopters were dispatched to survey the scene, and locals even brought frozen fish to feed the trapped whales.

Enter the Moskva

The Moskva, photographed while being built in dry dock. Image via Wikimedia.

The teams sent to the site quickly concluded that the only way to save the whales was to clear a path through the ice for them to escape. Four-meter-thick ice is hardly a trivial barrier, and due to this (alongside the close proximity of Vladivostok), the Moskva was eventually sent to break the whales free.

According to Whalescientists, when the Moskva first reached the area (in February 1985), its captain A. Kovalenko, whose full first name I’ve been unable to find, wanted to call the mission off. The ice was simply too thick. He seems to have changed his mind “after dozens of whales started to perish”. However, there are also some reports of up to 500 whales being carried off by local hunters; whether these were hunted or taken after their deaths, we don’t know. But Whalescientists adds that the helicopters were used to feed the whales during this time. So, there were genuine efforts to keep these animals alive being made at this time, despite the obvious conflict of interests between a community that practices subsistence hunting to this day, and a big, trapped pack of animals.

Still, after this initial delay, the crew weighed down the ship with as much fuel as it could carry, and forced it through the ice. At first, however, it didn’t go quite the way they expected.

The whales seemed very excited for the new space made available to them, going out through the large gaps in the ice to feed and rest. They were happy to be out of the water and recovering, even “playing, whistling, squealing, snorting” according to a Russian state newspaper cited by The New York Times.

But they didn’t come close to the ship or the passage it was clearing. The icebreaker moved “to and from the herd”, making no progress — then “someone” recalled that beluga whales reacted well to music. So they turned up the speakers on the Moskva’s deck and tried it, discovering that classical music seemed to attract the whales. It was a Pied Piper moment.

In the end, the crew made repeated forays through the ice, going back and forth towards the whales, to make them understand. The animals eventually started following them “kilometer by kilometer” on the passage the ship created. In this way, the many trapped whales (around 2,000) finally found their way to freedom.

A whale of a time

Now, not everyone reading this has had the ‘pleasure’ of living under totalitarian regimes, as the USSR was. Given that our primary sources for these events were state-controlled — as virtually all official news outlets were — and that states have a vested interest in painting themselves as kind, generous, just, and therefore legitimize themselves, we can assume that certain elements of the story were done up a bit, or that other unsavory details never made it in the published story. So don’t take everything here at face value.

But overall, Operation Beluga definitely happened. It’s a very heartwarming story of how humanity can foster and protect our cousins in the wild. It also showcases how behaviors that evolve over thousands of years can serve a species in general but fail them in particular situations they simply weren’t designed to deal with. In such conditions, our technology and ability to think on our feet can help solve the issue.

I personally enjoy thinking that humanity will, one day, take on the role of fostering the natural world around us. Stories like this one show how all of us stand to benefit: we get aww-inducing feel-good stories, feelings of fulfillment, and healthy ecosystems. The whales get to not starve to death. Definitely a win-win.

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