‘I just cried. That was the first one I’d ever seen’: Belugas thrill whale watchers along Turnagain Arm

Beluga Whale Alliance volunteers, tourists and filmmakers gathered along numerous Seward Highway pull-offs Thursday afternoon and watched as beluga whales traveled up Turnagain Arm.

For some tourists, having arrived in Alaska just days prior, the beluga sightings were an exciting way to begin their two-week journey across the state. Janet and Thom Stenman returned to Alaska after 15 years away for a group trip and watched with their friends.

Janet Stenman recalled a time when she saw orca whales breaching in Turnagain Arm — a rare event. “(The) memories are flooding back like crazy,” she said.

Cook Inlet beluga whales are endangered and saw a dramatic drop in their population over the last several decades. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists estimated that between 1979 and and 2018, the population declined 80% from 1,300 whales to only 279 among the Cook Inlet population.

Four miles south, Molly Caldas and her husband, Walter, sat on boulders overlooking the arm. He pointed into the distance and they watched as the bright white back of a beluga became visible at the surface of the muddy water.

Molly Caldas got emotional and leaned into her husband’s shoulder, burying her face.

“I just cried,” she said. “That was the first one I’d ever seen.”


Walter Caldas, who plays violin in the band B2wins, is performing at the Alaska State Fair. He and Molly Caldas, who live in Iowa, decided to come to Alaska early to explore and were headed to Seward.

“We’ll get there eventually,” she said.

Emily Mesner

Emily Mesner is a multimedia journalist for the Anchorage Daily News. She previously worked for the National Park Service at Denali National Park and Preserve and the Western Arctic National Parklands in Kotzebue, at the Cordova Times and at the Jackson Citizen Patriot in Jackson, Michigan.