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Known for their “chattiness”, belugas lead active social lives.

They are arctic whales, but Athena belonged to a small population residing farther south, namely in the St. Lawrence.

Researchers from the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM) first photographed Athena in 1989.

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White back of a beluga. A deep scar with a jagged edge can be seen on her side.
Athena was observed every year between 1989 and 2018, except in 1990.

Years in which Athena was observed.

On July 29, 2018, a beluga carcass is spotted by two individuals in the Saguenay Fjord. They contact Marine Mammal Emergencies. Thanks to their photos, researchers are able to recognize Athena !

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Photo of a beluga carcass floating near a rocky shore.
Photo of a beluga carcass being lifted with a net and a backhoe.
Marine Mammal Emergency logo 1 877 722-5346.
Photo of a beluga necropsy in the laboratory of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

When Athena was encountered for the first time, she was at least 14 years old. How do we know? Because she was already all white.

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Aerial photo of a white beluga with a calf that is the colour of café au lait and about half the size of an adult.
Aerial photo of a white beluga with a bluish-grey calf that is slightly more than half the size of the adult.
Photo of the backs of three belugas: one dark grey, one pale grey and one almost completely white.

Athena belonged to the beluga community that frequents the Saguenay Fjord. Research has shown that belugas use the same territory every summer.

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Map of the St. Lawrence beluga’s summer range and its main sectors. The upstream sector stretches from Baie-Saint-Paul to the Saguenay Fjord, the central sector includes the Fjord and its mouth and extends to the south shore, while the downstream sector encompasses the waters between Tadoussac and Forestville.Get more information on the upstream sectorGet more information on the centre sectorGet more information on the downstream sector

To keep in touch with her companions or relocate them after a separation, Athena probably used what is called a “contact call”.

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Video Transcript

Under water, light is scarce, but sound travels nearly 5 times faster than it does in the air.

For a whale, hearing is far more useful than vision and serves as much to communicate as to find one’s bearings !

Whales produce a wide variety of sounds, and belugas in particular boast one of the most diverse repertoires of any cetacean.

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Beluga illustration
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Humpback whale illustration
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Humpback whale

Blue whale illustration
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Blue whale

How do Athena and other toothed whales produce sounds ?

Sounds are not produced by vocal cords in the larynx like in humans, but by similar structures found inside the blowhole. Whales therefore do not need to open their mouths to communicate, as sound is transmitted directly through the melon.

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Anatomy of sound production organs in the beluga. Transparent view of beluga silhouette and its skull. The melon creates a rounded protuberance at the front of the head. Behind this are the nasal passages, which start from the blowhole on the top of the head and pass through the skull. In the upper part of the nasal passages are small pouches called vestibular sacs. A nasal tract has two pairs of vestibular sacs separated by the phonic lips.

How do baleen whales produce sounds ?

Baleen whales do not have phonic lips or melons. Rather, it is believed that their sounds are produced in the throat, a bit like humans with our vocal cords.

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Anatomy of sound production organs in baleen whales. Transparent view of a humpback whale silhouette and its skull. The nasal passages start from the blowhole on the top of the head and pass through the skull and down to the larynx. In the larynx lies the laryngeal sac, from which sounds are emitted.

How do whales hear ?

Sounds are received by the jaw and transmitted to the tympanic bulla. This causes the ossicles to vibrate, which causes the cochlea to vibrate, which then sends the signal to the brain.

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Anatomy of a beluga’s hearing system. Transparent view of beluga silhouette and its skull. Sounds are received by the lower jaw and pass through the acoustic window inside this jaw. They are subsequently transmitted to the tympanic bulla located at the base of the skull. The tympanic bulla then sends the nerve signal to the brain.

How does echolocation work ?

Echolocation allows toothed whales to know not only how far away an object is, but also how dense it is. It works like a natural sonar. The whale produces ultra-high frequency clicks and then picks up their echoes.

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Diagram of how echolocation works in belugas. The beluga emits a sound that reflects off a school of fish and then listens for its echo.

If sound is so important to whales, what happens when their acoustic world becomes cluttered with noise ?

Over the course of her life, Athena swam in increasingly noisy waters. More boat traffic means more noise.

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Photo of a beluga (foreground) and a boat (background).

Anytime a ship would pass through her sector, Athena probably had more difficulty hearing her companions or locating food.

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Video Transcript

Not being able to hear well can increase stress levels, compromise whales’ ability to feed or sever the bond between a mother and her calf.

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Image showing a female beluga with a calf at her side.

How can we mitigate noise pollution ?

Speed limit logo

Simply slowing down can help make a watercraft quieter.

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Photo of Baie Saint-Marguerite and its observation tower.

By protecting areas from boat traffic or other noisy activities, quieter areas known as acoustic refuges are created.

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What can we do to help mitigate noise pollution ?

Pleasure craft are a common sight on the St. Lawrence and Saguenay. It is therefore possible to do your part by paying attention to your own behaviour when you’re out on the water.

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Two pleasure boats in the Saguenay Fjord

Now that you’ve heard Athena's story, let’s go meet the other whales!

See the skeleton in 3D
Fact sheet
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