White Sea as World Ocean model
The coastline of the White Sea is an example of how human error can not only lead to disastrous consequences for the marine ecosystem and woodland areas near the coast but also affect the life of people in this harsh territory.
World Ocean model

The White Sea is one of Russia's smallest seas, covering an area of only 90,800 sq km, or one-sixteenth of the Barents Sea. Its depth, at the lowest point, is only 343 meters.

Oceanologists regard the White Sea as a miniature version of the World Ocean. It has all shallow-level zones, bays and a deep-water area, which provides a means of studying standing waves called seiches and internal fluctuations called Rossby waves. The sea's hydrological regime is affected by climatic conditions and water exchange with the Barents Sea, as well as tides, river flow and bottom topography.

"The White Sea is small but it has very diverse hydrological conditions across its area that determine the specifics of biocommunities and their development," says expedition member and oceanologist Sergei Klimov

Oceanologist Sergei KlimovOceanologist Sergei KlimovOceanologist Sergei Klimov working with a colleague
Right and upper left: oceanologist Sergei Klimov; lower left: oceanologist Sergei Klimov working with a colleague ©RIA Novosti. Vladimir Trefilov

Another characteristic of the White Sea noted by Klimov is its large number of shores. Each shore has its natural and historical properties. For example, the name of Abramovsky Shore comes from the word "abramok" which means "a baby walrus" in the local dialect because this is where Pomor industrial fishers used to catch walruses younger than 12 months. On the Tersky Shore, archaeologists discovered the remains of the first hunters of sea creatures, who lived in the area between 3000 and 2000 BC.

A great number of major rivers flow into the White Sea, including Kem, Mezen, Onega, Ponoi, Severnaya Dvina, and it is also fed by multiple small rivers that form big bays. The deepest and coldest bay is Kandalakshsky Bay, which is rockier and more elevated than the others.

Forests cover an extensive part of the shoreline of the bay as well as the mountain foothills, giving rise to the name by which it is sometimes known, "Russian Scandinavia"

The cold northern part of the White Sea, the Mezensky Bay, is exposed to strong winds and known for its fast currents, with forceful low and high tides. Even in winter, the highest tides near the Russian Arctic shore are so powerful that they break ice. This has prompted a project involving the creation of a new tidal power plant in the estuary of the Mezen River that will supply energy to Western Europe.


“An oasis in the cold northern sea”

The warmer water that flows from the Barents Sea into the White Sea remains at a depth of between 20 and 40 meters due to a higher concentration of salt, forming thermocline lenses. "Fish flock to these pockets of warmer water and remain active even in December, although it is believed that herring enter the stage of suspended animation in October," Sergei Klimov said.

The specific features of various areas in the White Sea provide favorable conditions for several types of herring, including the Solovets, Onega and Dvina varieties, as well as larger types of herring such as Kandalaksha, Yegoryevsk and Tersky-Pechora.

Oceanologist Andrei Lebedev
Oceanologist Andrei Lebedev ©RIA Novosti. Vladimir Trefilov

You can even catch the Pacific herring here, but marine scientist Andrei Lebedev says the best variety is the Solovets herring, which is "fat and very tasty, even if smallish"

The Solovets herring abounds near the Solovets Islands where sea conditions are very favorable. Andrei described this area as "an oasis in the cold northern sea."

The abundance of fish in the White Sea has always attracted people. The shallowest and warmest bay in the region, Onega Bay, is located in the west. This is where settlers from Novgorod came between the 9th and 11th century, later becoming known as the pomors. The pomors, literally "those who live near the sea," caught fish and sea animals, their favorite being the navaga, which is best in winter when it is fat and its skin becomes stronger and so does not split in the frying pan. The pomors fish on the ice ledge where the distance between the ice and the sea bottom is only several centimeters.

Stanislav Ipatov, a resident of the village of Purnema
Stanislav Ipatov, a resident of the village of Purnema ©RIA Novosti. Vladimir Trefilov

Stanislav Ipatov, a member of the younger generation of Onega Bay residents, shared the intricacies of catching navaga: "Local fishers know exactly when to move from one ice-hole to another along with the receding water and navaga."

The number of fish in the region has decreased in the past few years because of pollution and a growing number of fishers and poachers, who come to the region on new roads. Stanislav does not believe that things will improve


Deadly collision and its consequences

In 2003, an ore-bulk-oil carrier collided with a storage tanker in Onega Bay and spilled several tons of fuel oil into the sea. The rescue operation was not entirely successful, and so a large amount of marine life died and the consequences of that pollution are still strongly felt in the region.

Staff from the fresh water and marine ecosystems laboratory at the Institute of Environmental Studies of the North have come to the Onega Bay for years to study the white (beluga) whale and changes in the marine environment after that oil spill

In 2017, they studied a beluga calf that had been washed ashore and found by local residents who worked at the Onezhskoye Pomorye National Park. After inspecting and measuring the calf, expedition head Viktor Andrianov concluded that it was a female beluga calf and barely a few weeks old. "The sea is shallow in the area where the calf was found. We believe that it strayed from its pack. Water recedes very fast, and the calf probably became too dry," the scientist said.

White whale calf found by the researchersHead of the expedition Viktor Andrianov (Ph.D. in Biology) workingViktor Andrianov working with a colleague
Right: white whale calf found by the researchers; upper left: head of the expedition Viktor Andrianov (Ph.D. in Biology) working; lower left: Viktor Andrianov working with a colleague ©RIA Novosti. Vladimir Trefilov

Last summer, the scientists identified the areas where beluga whales live and where their calves are born. One of their favorite places is the Gluboky Cape, where oil was spilled during the collision in 2003. Now the scientists need to determine where the beluga whales are looking for a new home, and why they refuse to leave the Gluboky Cape.

Andrei Lebedev said they are trying to understand how the oil spill affected the Onega Bay ecosystem in general, and the beluga whale as the top element of the local food chain

Scientists say their goal is to simulate the negative effects of environmental disasters in water bodies with similar hydrographic conditions, sea floor and shore structure.



Editor: Yekaterina Kolchina
Author: Vladimir Trefilov
Research adviser: Andrei Lebedev