Russian scientists and ecologists continue Caspian seals aerial survey in the Russian waters of the Caspian Sea in the framework of Soul of the Caspian Project. A scientific group consisting of specialists in marine mammals from the All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of RAS together with the staff of Clean Seas Foundation and United Telecom JSC are conducting research using two types of Russian-made aircraft equipped with optical and infrared video and photo equipment: a La-8 manned amphibious aircraft and DIAM-Aero unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
February is a unique period in the life of the Caspian seal. At this time, most of the population gathers on ice fields of the Northern Caspian for breeding. Since 2020, seals winter aerial survey in Kazakhstan sector of the sea has been carried out by scientists from Russia and Kazakhstan as part of joint research, but this year, for the first time, a strong ice cover has been formed not only in the Kazakhstan, but also in the Russian waters of the Caspian Sea. The task of the Russian expeditionary group is to carry out an aerial survey of seals in the western, Russian zone of the Northern Caspian, while the Kazakhstan-Russian research team is doing similar work in the northeastern part of the sea.
The scientists have to fly along the routes in the difficult climatic conditions of the Caspian Sea, with its unpredictability and the strongest February winds. The experienced La-8 commander, Hero of Russia, cosmonaut and test pilot of the 1st class Valery Tokarev helps to overcome these difficulties. The co-pilot is Natalya Dmitrieva. The aerial laboratory tacks over the frozen waters of the Caspian Sea in search of seal haul-outs. Aircraft windows are equipped with blisters (convex portholes that increase the viewing angle for scientific observers). Also, in La-8, a specially designed retractable device is installed – a video recording system. Simultaneously with the aircraft, UAVs, imperceptibly for seals, scan in detail their aggregations for a detailed account of the number and size of animals. The joint use of a manned aircraft and UAV can significantly improve the accuracy of population estimates.
To date, three La-8 flights with a total length of about 2,450 kilometers and five UAV flights with a total length of over 2,500 km have been completed along the planned routes. The water area of more than 9 thousand sq. km was surveyed. Thermal imagers on board aircraft make it possible to find not only adult seals, but also pups on white ice, which cannot be seen from a height with the human eye. In the Russian part of the North Caspian, seals have been recorded along the southern edge of the ice fields adjacent to the Volga delta. Basically, these are lone animals and small groups of 3-15 seals.
The population size will be estimated after processing the materials obtained with the help of monitoring complexes (cameras and thermal imagers) installed on the aircrafts.
The implementation of the project became possible thanks to the initiative of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology of the Russian Federation and the support of Lukoil.