KENAI — A simmering excitement spread through a group of volunteers standing on the edge of a bluff overlooking the Kenai River on a recent morning. In the distance, tiny gray and white shapes emerged and disappeared at the mouth of the river, barely distinguishable against the water’s surface.
Here they come.
As the pod of beluga whales headed up the Kenai River, group members peered through camera lenses and binoculars. Soon, they began scribbling on clipboards as one volunteer — Teresa Becher — stretched out her hand perpendicular to the river below.
Once the whales passed beneath Becher’s hand, spotters counted the white flashes of surfacing belugas.
“Twelve, 13, 14!” Becher announced as each whale emerged briefly past her arm.
These citizen scientists fill a critical role in helping to better understand the declining Cook Inlet beluga whale population, according to Verena Gill, who works as a supervisory wildlife biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Of the species protected by NOAA Fisheries under the Endangered Species Act, the agency lists Cook Inlet belugas as one of nine closest to extinction.
The whales’ population has plummeted, from over 1,300 whales in 1979 to around 279 by 2018, according to recent NOAA estimates. Researchers suspected that unregulated beluga hunting led to the drop, but even after the hunting ceased, the beluga population continued to decline, Gill said.
“We don’t know why they have not recovered,” Gill said. “There’s lots of different hypotheses, but we have yet to understand why they are not recovering.”
This spring, volunteers first observed belugas in the Kenai River in late March, and the whales have been there consistently through April, sometimes swimming several miles in.
The belugas swim into the river to feed but aren’t spotted once May arrives, which — according to Gill — “makes no sense” since around that time, some of their favorite foods like hooligan and eventually salmon start to show up.
“But they leave and they don’t come to the Kenai until about the first of September,” Gill said. “So, we’re trying to understand why that might be.”
Since NOAA scientists can’t be out there every day and can’t attach tracking tags to the belugas because of their endangered status, the volunteers fill an important gap in helping to understand when and how the belugas use the river — producing valuable data about whale habitat and behavior.
“I think the only way we’re going to turn this around for the belugas is to have people in the community help us understand what is going on with them,” Gill said.
Hopefully, the monitoring efforts will help “unravel this puzzle,” she said.
The whales appear small from a distance but weigh 3,150 pounds on average. They stretch some 13 feet in length and can live up to 90 years, their bodies covered in a thick layer of blubber that helps them live in the cold waters of Cook Inlet.
Viewed from the bluffs Sunday, the belugas in the Kenai River swam for several minutes as about a half-dozen volunteers determined the total count and marked down their behavior.
“It’s easy to think there’s more than there are,” Becher said as another whale dipped up and flashed below. Becher, in her 60s, is a retired California Highway Patrol chief who is now back in school studying natural sciences, and she coordinates volunteers for the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Partnership.
Nearby, Suzanne Steinert, who runs the Beluga Whale Alliance, looked out to spot the belugas in the distance. The alliance usually monitors sites along the Seward Highway and at Ship Creek in Anchorage but had come down for the weekend to watch for belugas in the Kenai River.
“What I’m looking for right now is just their bright white backs popping up,” she said. “I like to say they look like Tic Tacs and chocolate milk.”
Chandera Tolley, 27, from Eagle River, works in financial aid at the University of Alaska Anchorage and helps monitor at the Ship Creek site. She had also come down to the Kenai to help monitor, which she said can be stressful — balancing the hectic rush to collect data, snap pictures and just enjoy the belugas as they pass by.
But it’s her passion. She’s from Tennessee and hadn’t seen a whale until she moved to Alaska.
“As many beluga sightings that I’ve had since I moved here, my jaw still drops when I see them come up the water,” Tolley said.
It’s tough to count the whales. Belugas can hold their breath for 15 to 20 minutes, so some might not even surface as they swim past. Others might turn and go backwards underwater, if they’re chasing fish.
On Sunday, the count soon climbed to 22 belugas. That was much higher than usual, close to their record count this season of 23 whales in a single day.
Then another few showed up, bringing the tally to 25.
“This is awesome!” Becher exclaimed with glee. “And the odds that some portion will go farther up the river are huge.”
After they finished their session on the bluffs, the volunteers relocated to a nearby bridge along with a few passersby, including Brittany and Andy Castagno, who moved to the Kenai Peninsula in October for Andy’s work.
The Castagnos, who had never seen belugas before, said they originally stopped to watch a seal swimming past.
“This is the best day of my life,” Brittany Castagno said after witnessing belugas surface against the gray-brown river water.
At the bridge, Becher urged everyone to continue toward Cunningham Park a few blocks away, where onlookers could get one final close-up view of the belugas.
Most eventually left and headed back toward the mouth of the Kenai without seeing any of the whales that far upriver.
But Becher held out longer than most, scanning the water’s surface, watching and waiting.