Research and Adventure on the White Sea Coast

Research and Adventure on the White Sea Coast

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An eco-tourism initiative prepares to create a sanctuary on the beautiful coast of the White Sea and welcomes researchers to help.

A new eco-tourism project has just been launched on the spectacular coast of the White Sea, from the village of Chupa. Run by Vasily Efimov and Yulia Suprunenko, it offered tours of the sea coast and forest, seal and bird watching, and a trip to see the beluga whales of Nilma, for the first time this winter. The programs for this spring and summer will soon be announced.

But their final goal is much more than that—the ultimate establishment of a natural park, to protect the fragile ecosystems of this very special part of the world. To this end, experts from other countries are invited to come and participate in the research.

The sea coast village of Chupa is located in the Loukhi district of Karelia, just 32 km from the Arctic circle. The highly indented coastline and countless islands protect inland waters where marine life flourishes—numerous species of seabirds, seals, and beluga whales are found there. The forested land lies low beneath the arching sky, laced with rivers and streams, and abounding with wildlife.

Yulia, (which reads “Julia” in English) is a biologist from the Moscow Pedagogical State University who became fascinated by the region during summer work on the off-shore islands. She was invited back to participate in a conference on establishing environmental management in the White Sea area. The project was lead by Alexander Tsetlin (director of the biological station of Moscow State University on the White Sea) and Vasily Spiridonov (the Project Coordinator for Marine Biodiversity of WWF), and Yulia was employed as an assistant. She stayed in Chupa, and soon became the Project Coordinator. As well as her work for the WWF, she studied the traditions and knowledge of the Pomors, the inhabitants of that part of the coast, for a thesis written for the Institute of Heritage at the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Yulia soon met Vasily Efimov, who is himself a Pomor. He intimately knows the geography, the weather conditions, the features of the sea currents, the movements of the fish, and the flora and fauna. Yulia told me that during the expeditions he led in 2009 and 2010 to study beluga whales (for WWF of Russia and the Institute of Problems of Evolution and Ecology), he could “feel” their location below, when operating the boat, even when searching for the whales in new locations. They were looking for the places that the mothers and yearlings come each year for birthing, feeding, and play, to better understand these white whale aggregations.

So when they married in 2011, it was natural for the couple to persevere in their efforts to study and find ways to protect this beautiful region, which held such enchantment for them. With Yulia as the coordinator and biologist, and Vasily as the guide, they make the perfect team.

They started a program for the study and protection of seabirds, whose nesting colonies are threatened, and conducted tours to visit vulnerable species, and provide information about them. This work resulted in several initiatives for their protection, which are ongoing, including establishing trails to keep tourists away from the main nests and feeding grounds of the marine and coastal birds, and limiting access to some of the off-shore islands and other sensitive locations during the nesting season.

In addition, they helped identify areas which are especially worthy of protection in terms of water ecosystems, forest ecosystems, and culture, and provided tours to the nearby Belomorsky biological station in the White Sea, (affiliated with the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences), where visitors could learn about the local flora and fauna, including the submarine life, directly from the biologists there.

The White Sea program was ongoing for twelve years, (supported by the Lighthouse Foundation's Fund of the Seas and Oceans, and the WWF of Russia) when in 2011, the WWF withdrew much of its support. Though the Lighthouse Foundation continued to financially support it, more was needed for the far-reaching program.

So in the interests of generating more income for their projects and for the region, this year, for the first time, Yulia and Vasily organized an informative and entertaining winter program for visitors.

During the week-long holiday, the Arctic sky often shimmered with curtains of the aurora borealis, while the visitors enjoyed skiing, skating, and tours of the forest, lakes and coast. The traditional Orthodox Christmas celebration included a trip to the forest to find the most beautiful tree. There was seal and bird watching, ice fishing, followed by a workshop to make fish soup according to local tradition, and a visit to the white whales of Nilma, including the opportunity to swim or dive with them.

Children were entertained with skiing, skating, and sleighing in the fairy tale surroundings, all decorated with fluffy snow. The visitors experienced local life up close, enjoyed traditional food and lodges with real wood stoves, cozy in the midst of the wild, dramatic landscape of the north.

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Spring and summer programs are planned. All are reasonably priced, and the details will be posted on-line shortly.

Yulia remains the coordinator of all of the projects on the White Sea, which are carried out by the non-profit organization Basin Council of the North Karelian Coast, which was created for the purpose by the WWF and Lighthouse Foundation in 2003.

On behalf of the Council, Yulia organizes international scientific and practical conferences on the preservation of the natural and cultural heritage of the White Sea, and helps to identify environmental problems and find solutions to them. The organization also works on environmental education, the creation of natural reserves, and the public promotion of sustainable development and environmental protection. It serves as a center of information, and holds cultural and entertainment programs for young people.

The WWF had already begun developing the idea of establishing a protected park in the region, and Yulia and Vasily are continuing this work. The couple are working to create and maintain various environmental projects, and their vision for the protection of this marine ecosystem has become a community effort.

Working with other residents, they are finding ways to start small projects which fit in with the culture, as well as the protection of the natural ecosystems, and this has resulted in some interesting programs. They have received geologists, historians, ichthyologists, and ornithologists, to add their expertise to the growing pool of knowledge of the area.

Some residents lease housing, some provide traditional food, and others arrange educational programs and classes, while Yulia and Vasily organize ecological expeditions. Other projects have involved the restoration of ancient houses and boats. With the assistance of the Institute of Environmental Problems and Evolutions of the Russian Academy of Sciences, a project involving the involving the tagging of seals, aimed at learning their migration routes is in preparation.

In 2015, much more is planned.

Yulia and Vasily are inviting experts from other northern countries to participate in the research, and already seabird ornithologists with experience in similar types of sea island and coastline ecosystems have been invited and will be starting work at the beginning of June.

Yulia writes : “And if there are many experts in different areas, it will be possible to do many good projects diversely!”

If you are interested, please write to her directly at :

(c) Ila France Porcher