Three killer whales that worried biologists this week by traveling far up the Nushagak River in Southwest Alaska appear to have left the river's fresh water and headed back to more-familiar salt water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Though it's possible that spotters on a flight Friday afternoon missed the black-and-white whales, it's likely that they are in the safer waters of Nushagak Bay or Bristol Bay, said Barbara Mahoney, a biologist with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service.
A pilot Friday flew with U.S. Fish and Wildlife personnel from the river's mouth near Dillingham, past a spot about 30 miles upriver where the whales had been spotted earlier in the week, to the villages of Ekwok, New Stuyahok and Koliganek, Mahoney said. Nobody on the plane saw the whales, she said.
"We're kind of thinking they swam out into the bay and have passed Dillingham," Mahoney said. "We're trying to get people to look for them on their normal routines just to be sure of that."
The report followed news Friday that the whales were moving downstream.
Longtime Dillingham resident Nick Wahl said he was flying home from a trip up the river late Thursday in his Piper PA-20 Pacer when he saw the whales three or four miles from where the river's fresh water mixes with Nushagak Bay salt water.
The whales were about 15 miles downstream from where they'd been seen earlier, indicating they were moving in the right direction, Wahl said.
"They were just kind of swimming slow, up a little bit and then back down in kind of an oval circle. They were going back and forth in that one spot, kind of meandering along there."
"I've never seen anything like that before," said Wahl, who's lived all of his 77 years in the area.
Wahl's report was good news for biologists concerned about the whales' health, said killer whale expert Craig Matkin.
The two adult whales accompanied by one juvenile were likely starving without proper food and had developed a skin condition during the roughly three weeks they'd been in the fresh water, Matkin said. Matkin said he'd also heard reports that the whales' breathing sounded poor.
"They are not in good shape," Matkin said.
And with temperatures and the river level dropping, biologists were concerned that the killer whales would not be able to escape the river.
Villagers in Ekwok and New Stuyahok were ready to help if needed, said Kimberly Williams, executive director of Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of Alaska Native groups and corporations in Bristol Bay.
"But if the whales are moving, maybe they're doing it themselves, maybe we won't have to rescue them, Williams said.
Williams said that with guidance from federal biologists, a group of at least six boats could have herded the whales down the river using "bang pipes," noisemaking devices used to move whales to safe waters. Still, the least-stressful outcome for the whales would be for them to head to the ocean on their own, Williams said.
That support would have been crucial, said NOAA Alaska fisheries spokeswoman Julie Speegle.
"The locals, they've been our eyes and ears on the ground," Speegle said. "And if we were to go forward with any kind of an operation to assist the whales, we'd definitely be relying heavily on them."
Mahoney, the federal biologist, said late Friday she was in the process of planning another overflight to look for the whales today.
"It's good news for the whales to get to the marine environment, their home, to be able to feed and get healthy again," Mahoney said. "There is an interest in knowing more about these whales and how they'll respond to this event ... so it's very possible they could be monitored over time."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.