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Cook Inlet beluga whale population has slight uptick on long road to recovery

Ben Anderson
Leatherback turtle.
Photo by Scott R. Benson, NMFS
Short-tailed albatross male and egg on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo by Pete Leary/USFWS
North Pacific right whale.
NOAA photo
A fin whale.
Photo by Lori Mazzuca, NOAA
Scientists tagging a beluga whale in Cook Inlet near Anchorage.
NOAA photo
Wood bison in Canada.
Wikipedia photo
Sperm whale
NOAA photo
Blue whale
National Park Service photo
North Pacific right whale with calf.
NOAA photo
A humpback whale calf breaching off Hawaii.
HIHWNMS NOAA Fisheries Permit #782-1438
Bowhead whale
NOAA photo
Spectacled eiders are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Photo by Greg Balough/USFWS
Loggerhead Turtle escaping a net equipped with turtle excluder device (TED).
NOAA photo
The green sea turtle is listed as threatened under the endangered species act.
Photo by Andy Bruckner, NOAA
A polar bear.
Photo courtesy USGS
Steller sea lions are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game photo
Drawing of fur seal, sea lion and sea cow from Waxel's chart of Bering's voyage, 1741 in Frank Alfred Golder's BERING'S VOYAGES (Alaska Purchase Centennial Collection, ca. 1764-1967. ASL-P20-182)
Alaska State Library Alaska Purchase Centennial Collection

For a couple of weeks during the summer of 2012, Alaskans driving Seward Highway may have seen a pod of beluga whales frolicking in the waters of Turnagain Arm near Girdwood. It would have been a lucky sight -- a mere 312 of the long-endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales were counted last year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual count of the animals.

That's a slight uptick from 2011, when the count was one of the lowest it had been in 20 years -- just 284 whales. But it's still far from a strong showing for Cook Inlet's white whales, which were listed as endangered in 2008 and are one of five distinct beluga populations in Alaska waters. The most whales counted came in 2007 and 2008, when the population was listed at an estimated 375 animals.

The 2012 survey, which covered all of Cook Inlet's more than 1,100-mile coastline, took place in late May and early June. While the study covered the same areas as previous years' surveys, researchers noted that groups of belugas were being spotted in some areas they hadn't been seen for more than 15 years -- and in larger numbers than usual.

In particular, whales in the lower Cook Inlet have been a rare sight -- but a group was spotted temporarily hanging out in that area at the beginning of this year's survey.

"A group of belugas was observed just offshore of West Foreland swimming north into upper Cook Inlet. Beluga whales have not been observed in this area during our surveys since 2001," said NOAA scientist Kim Shelden in a statement from the agency. "This group of 12 to 21 whales then moved into Trading Bay where they remained for the duration of the survey, not far from the mouth of the McArthur River. Groups of this size have not been seen during our beluga whale surveys south of North Foreland since 1995."

Full results of this year's survey are here.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com