Short-term behavioral responses of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus) and beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) to a Bell 212 helicopter and Twin Otter fixed-wing aircraft were observed opportunistically during four spring seasons (1989–1991 and 1994). Behaviors classified as reactions consisted of short surfacings, immediate dives or turns, changes in behavior state, vigorous swimming, and breaching.
The helicopter elicited fewer detectable responses by bowheads (14% of 63 groups) than by belugas (38% of 40). Most observed reactions by bowheads (63%) and belugas (86%) occurred when the helicopter was at altitudes ≤150 m and lateral distances ≤250 m. Belugas reacted significantly more frequently during overflights at lateral distances ≤250 m than at longer lateral distances (P= 0.004). When the helicopter was on the ice with engines running, 7 of 14 groups of belugas reacted, up to 320 m away, sometimes with small-scale (≤100 m) diversion; only 1 of 8 groups of bowheads reacted.
For the fixed-wing aircraft, few bowheads (2.2%) or belugas (3.2%) were observed to react to overflights at altitudes 60–460 m. Most observed reactions by bowheads (73%) and belugas (70%) occurred when the fixed-wing aircraft was at altitudes ≤182 m and lateral distances ≤250 m. However, the proportions reacting, especially to low-altitude flights (e. g., ≤182 m), were underestimated for both species because observation opportunities were brief. Even so, reactions were more common when the aircraft was low (≤182 m): P= 0.009 for belugas, P= 0.06 for bowheads. There was little if any reaction by bowheads when the aircraft circled at altitude 460 m and radius 1 km.
Aircraft sounds measured underwater at depths 3 m and 18 m showed that a Bell 212 helicopter was 7–17.5 dB noisier than a Twin Otter (10–500 Hz band). Bell 212 sound consisted mainly of main rotor tones ahead of the helicopter and tail rotor tones behind it. Twin Otter sound contained fewer prominent tones. Peak sound level as received underwater was inversely related to aircraft altitude, and received levels at 3 m depth averaged 2.5 dB higher than at 18 m depth. The dominant low-frequency components of aircraft sound are presumed to be readily audible to bowheads. For belugas, these components may be inaudible, or at most only weakly audible. Mid-frequency sound components, visual cues, or both, are probably important in eliciting beluga reactions to aircraft.