A young gray whale first spotted earlier this week in the eastern end of Turnagain Arm is now swimming in a deep portion of Twentymile River, but it’s unclear if it will be able to swim out during high tide.
The 18- to 20-foot whale was more than a mile upriver from the Twentymile Bridge on the Seward Highway on Wednesday, said Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Alaska.
The whale had been swimming in circles in Turnagain Arm on Monday and Tuesday, and Speegle said it appeared to be sick or injured. The whale was young, either a juvenile or a calf separated from its mother, she said.
Gray whales can grow up to 49 feet long and weigh roughly 90,000 pounds.
Speegle said Tuesday trackers were hoping the whale would swim to deeper waters of the Arm while the tide was high, but it instead headed into the river. It was in a small but deep area of the river Tuesday afternoon, but Speegle said the river has many areas that are shallower, which will make it difficult for the whale to get back out.
“It’s able to swim around about 500 to 600 yards but it’s stuck, especially at low tide,” she said. “When it’s high tide we are hoping it may swim downriver, but we’re not too hopeful about it.”
The Girdwood Fire Department checked on the whale by boat Wednesday morning and it was still in the same place, Speegle said.
“The whale either entered the river to forage, likely on eulachon, or is sick and compromised, in which case we do not want to exacerbate its condition by adding stress and approaching the whale or attempting to move it out of the area,” she said.
The whale may remain in the river through the weekend but Speegle said there is a larger tide expected on June 2 that may help it maneuver out. She said NOAA and the Girdwood Fire Department are working to get better photos and videos of the whale to look at its skin and body condition and assess its health.
In the meantime, officials are asking the public to keep their distance and urging boaters to slow down through the area to avoid hitting or spooking the whale.
Gray whales are not common in Cook Inlet, but have shown up there occasionally through the years. The whales migrate annually to Alaska from Mexico and Southern California. They spend the summer feeding in shallow waters of the Bering and Chukchi seas before heading south in the fall. Speegle said whales have been reported this year from Craig to Kodiak.
Four gray whales have died in Alaska so far this year, Speegle said. There was a significant spike in gray whale deaths last year along the West Coast and Alaska.
A male gray whale was discovered in southern Bristol Bay about a half-mile up the Meshik River near Port Heiden on April 22. A whale carcass was seen floating in Orca Channel to the west of Point Whitehead in Cordova on May 20, and gray whale bones and baleen were found on a Yakutat beach the same day.
Speegle said that on Wednesday a member of NOAA’s stranding network was investigating a gray whale carcass that washed ashore in Anchor Point. Jacob Barrette said he stumbled upon the carcass on May 19 about 2 miles south of Anchor Point beach. A dead seal and otter had washed ashore nearby, he said.
Two whales died in Turnagain Arm by this time last year. A young humpback likely died from stress after it beached twice in April 2019, and scientists were unable to determine what caused a gray whale to die because its carcass became stuck in the mudflats.
More than 120 gray whales died along the North American West Coast last year and 48 were stranded in Alaska. From 2001 to 2018 there were an average of 29 whale strandings per year. NOAA declared the elevated level of deaths an “unusual mortality event,” which spurred an investigation into what was causing the unexpected die-off. Many of the whales appeared to be emaciated.
To report a stranded or floating marine mammal, the public can call NOAA’s hotline at 877-925-7773. Speegle said sightings or information about the gray whale currently in the Twentymile River can also be reported to the hotline.