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The underwater webcam attached to Hayley Shephard's boat captures what at first appear to be green glowing orbs as she motors through an estuary in remote Canada.
They feel the lens with their teeth and blow bubbles at it. 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 beluga cam lets viewers watch the whales as they nuzzle and clown for the camera, feel the lens with their teeth and blow bubbles at it.
Viewers can also listen to the mammals calling and chatting with one another in their high-pitched squawks and warbles.
(explore.org) Its creators — Montana-based Polar Bears International and Explore.org, a project of the Annenberg Foundation — 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?
Do beluga whales have a matriarchal social structure?
Do certain whale groups' low numbers have a long-term effect on the rest of the population, such as the case with the population in Alaska's Cook Inlet, which is struggling as compared to the healthy Hudson Bay population?
"As far as I know, there's no other investigation of beluga from under the water on this scale," Petersen said.