How a Soviet icebreaker saved 2,000 beluga whales with Music between Chukotka and Alaska

Posted on February 14, 2022 by ELCOMUNISTA.NET in HISTORY

Music turned out to be the key to success in the unique rescue operation.

In 1985, some 2,000 beluga whales became trapped in thick ice that quickly encircled them and threatened to kill the mammals. The icebreaker ‘Moskva’ was deployed to free the whales, but they did not want to follow the noisy ship into open water. But then ingenuity (and music) came to the rescue.

an ice trap

Las ballenas beluga


beluga whales

In late December 1984, local hunters and fishermen near Ytigran Island in the Bering Sea, just off the coast of Chukotka and only about 130 miles from Alaska, saw something disturbing: a pod of approximately 2,000 belugas was trapped by fast ice near the coast.

Belugas, known as “belujas” or “polar dolphins” in Russia, are mammals that need to come to the surface to breathe. Being trapped in rapidly closing ice spells certain death for the animals. Without the help of humans, the whales would soon have died.

The sparse local population quickly came to the rescue. For weeks, the locals crushed the ice to prevent the small pool from freezing completely, while feeding the animals frozen fish. However, their efforts proved insufficient, as the fast ice inevitably closed in on the trapped animals.

the icebreaker

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Thanks to the help of locals, the animals survived for more than a month, when authorities finally sent an icebreaker to the region to free the slowly dying trapped whales.

“The icebreaker ‘Moskva’ raced against time and plummeting temperatures to reach the whales before they suffocated or starved to death in the shrinking pools of open water,” reported the New York Times, which called the incident as “one of the most unusual rescue operations in the history of Arctic shipping”.

In the following days, the whole world followed the development of what was called “Operation Beluja”.

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Guided by reconnaissance aircraft, the icebreaker ‘Moskva’, commanded by Captain Anatoli M. Kovalenko, rushed to the rescue. At first, the gigantic ship cut large pools of water where the whales were able to regain their breath and strength.

However, the goal was to make sure that the whales did not remain in places where the water would soon refreeze. Sailors had to lure the whales out of the shallows and out into the open sea.

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The crew had to figure out how to make the whales follow a huge, noisy icebreaker, which scared the mammals with its propellers. They came up with an original solution: with music.

follow the sound

After days of unsuccessful efforts to lure the whales out of the trap, someone offered a different solution.

“Finally, someone remembered that dolphins react remarkably to music. And so the first chords began to pour out of the upper deck. Pop, martial, classical music. The classic turned out to be the most liked by the belugas. The herd began to slowly follow the boat,” the New York Times quoted in its local news.

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Records from the time contradict each other as to what music was played for the whales. Some reports say it was Soviet pop, while others say the mammals turned to classical music. Regardless of gender, the crew soon found the tactic a success.

“Our tactic is as follows: We go back, then we go forward again on the ice, we make a passage and we wait. We repeat it several times. The belugas begin to ‘understand’ our intentions and follow the icebreaker. Thus, we move kilometer by kilometer”, said then the captain Anatoly M. Kovalenko.

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At the end of February, all the trapped whales were released and escaped to the open sea. By some estimates, the rescue operation cost the Soviet Union about $55,000 (approximately $148,000 today).

RBTH
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