National Geographic Young Explorer and wildlife photographer Nansen Weber has been going to the same party for 16 years and it never gets old. Each summer for about a month, thousands of beluga whales congregate in Cunningham Inlet, a part of Canada’s Somerset Island. “Basically it’s just a big party, a socializing thing. There’s been speculations that the whales go there to molt their skin, to get rid of parasites, that it’s a nursery for the young whales, but … you can definitely see it on their face—they’re having a good time. They’re enjoying the warmer water of the Cunningham River, which can be 8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the ocean and that’s like a bathtub when you’re swimming in 1 degree Fahrenheit water all the time,” Weber says, describing the yearly scene.
The belugas don’t seem to mind that Weber is crashing their party. In fact, Weber has spent so much time photographing the whales that they’ve come to know and trust him, swimming within feet of him and allowing him to get amazing close-ups. Using a drone, Weber has also captured mesmerizing aerial footage of the epic beluga parties, stunning footage of polar bears swimming in icy blue waters, and the harsh but awe-inspiring Arctic landscape. Weber has no shortage of gorgeous footage from the ground, including head-butting musk ox and playful Arctic fox pups. Check out the video to see Weber’s striking images.
While Weber has been fortunate enough to witness the massive beluga whale congregation for nearly two decades, he worries that future gatherings are numbered. Climate change has compromised wildlife habitats and is breaking up ice in the Northwest Passage, allowing more ship traffic through. “This might be the only place on Earth you can enjoy the beluga whales like this that is still wild like it’s been for the last 500 years, but maybe it’s going to be changing. Just in my lifetime of being in the Arctic for 20 years, I’ve seen climate change. There’s new birds that are migrating up north that I haven’t seen before, there’s mosquitoes now where there shouldn’t be mosquitoes, the ice patterns and weather patterns are all weird. It’s kind of a dilemma that’s always there in the back of your head while you’re enjoying the beluga whale spectacle in front of you,” Weber says.
This dilemma inspired Weber to take photos of the beluga whales not just for the sake of beauty or awe but to help protect the species as part of a National Geographic grant. “I sit there on the beach trying to photo identify these beluga whales. My work is contributing to a beluga whale photo ID program that will allow scientists to understand which whales are coming in and out of the bay, which whales come back year after year, how long the whales stay, and it is the base for any scientific work that has to be done in Cunningham Inlet.” Weber’s photos can help shed light on how increased ship traffic may be disrupting the beluga whale population’s migratory routes, he says. “There has been scientific evidence that the ship traffic—the sonar—affects the communication between the belugas, so that could definitely be a problem for the future for our belugas in Cunningham Inlet.”
But Weber’s concerns extend to the entire Arctic region and all of its inhabitants. “It’s not only about the beluga whales. I mean, we have polar bears, there’s narwhals and bowheads along the Northwest Passage, arctic char that run in the rivers. Inland you have the musk ox, the caribou that graze, all the migratory birds that fly up every summer to enjoy the short arctic summer, the snowy owls, the falcons. It’s just a huge ecosystem that’s all tied together,” Weber says in wonderment. “One of the most exciting moments I’ve had while photographing there was when a 60-foot bowhead whale died and washed up along the shore. There was eight polar bears there feasting on it all summer. You’d see the polar bears dive down, rip these huge chunks of blubber out of this rotten whale. It was a magical moment. Every day I’m out there photographing is such a great privilege.”
Weber hopes the inspiration he feels in the Arctic will be felt by others who view his images. “I love wildlife photography because it’s a way for me to share with the rest of the world what I see, and what I think is important. People don’t get to see beluga whales or polar bears every day, but they all should know that the Arctic is such an important part of our environment, and we need to protect it. Hopefully through watching these drone videos of beluga whales, people can say ‘Wow, this is such an amazing place. We definitely need to keep this safe.'”
Weber’s family operates the Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge, where he also serves as an Arctic guide. To see another National Geographic grantee who makes the Arctic his “office,” check out Best Job Ever: Traversing Glaciers featuring polar explorer Børge Ousland. Watch the entire Best Job Ever series online