Dead belugas beached off Kincaid Park may be treasure for scientists

Two beluga whales were found freshly dead on mud flats just south of Kincaid Park on Monday night, though the cause of their deaths remains unknown.

Scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Alaska SeaLife Center spent Tuesday morning fighting a race against the fast-moving tide to perform a necropsy on a muddy beach about a mile from the park's motorcycle racing area in an effort to determine why the two female whales washed ashore.

The whales did not appear to have external injuries, according to Barb Mahoney, assistant stranding coordinator with National Marine Fisheries Service. Mud was packed into one whale's trachea, indicating it had been stranded alive.

Mahoney suspected the smaller whale, a 10-foot female, was at least 7 years old. The larger one, about 12 feet long, was tagged with a satellite tracker in 2002. Mahoney said once the whales' teeth are more closely examined, researchers will get a more accurate age.

It's relatively rare to see a dead beluga ashore in Cook Inlet. The endangered animals -- there are an estimated 315 living in the Inlet -- are often spotted swimming through the silty-gray waters of Knik and Turnagain arms. A few beached whales are found every year, the last one near the Turnagain Arm community of Hope in October 2013.

But if one of the animals were to wash ashore, marine biologists Lisanne Aerts and Bill Streever would be among the best people to find it.

That's what happened Monday night when the couple spotted the dead whales about three-quarters of a mile apart while walking along sandy bluffs near the Kincaid Park sand dunes that overlook the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.

The couple quickly contacted the National Marine Fisheries Service stranding hot line at around 8 p.m. Within minutes, they were in contact with Mahoney, formulating a plan to tie the carcasses down to prevent them from floating back into the Inlet.

Using metal poles they found on the side of the beach, which is littered with rusty cars abandoned decades ago, and some rope, Aerts and Streever managed to tie down the whales.

It wasn't the first time they'd spotted a dead beluga. Streever said the couple reported another in 2009.

"Because you know what to do, it makes it easier," he said.

The couple also know that the sooner researchers get to a whale carcass, the more they can learn about the cause of death.

"Better that they're dead and here and you can learn something from them than when they're floating out there," Aerts said.

The couple returned Tuesday morning to help Mahoney and other researchers begin the process of determining what caused the whales' deaths. Both carcasses were in "pristine" condition when found Monday night, Streever said. By Tuesday that had changed: Scavenging birds had scraped and pecked at the while flesh of each animal. Blood running down the whales' faces pooled in the gray mud, the result of birds pecking out each animal's exposed eye.

Mahoney and volunteers -- some from the Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, research students from Alaska Pacific University and a veterinarian and assistants from the Alaska SeaLife Center -- worked quickly against the incoming tide, cutting chunks of blubber off the first whale, each about the width of an LP record and 4 inches thick. They took some blubber samples for research on the Inlet beluga population and threw the rest onto the mud flats for birds to scavenge.

Some of the animals' organs will be taken to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward for further examination, Mahoney said, and the skulls will be taken to the University of Alaska Museum of North in Fairbanks to be added to a marine mammal bone collection.

Mahoney and others remarked on the absence of any putrid smell. Mahoney said she was excited to get such a close look at a freshly dead beluga. She hoped to learn what it ate and what kind of contaminants, if any, were in its body, as well as what hormones. Mahoney said since the species became protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2002, invasive research has been limited.

"We don't have too many to put our hands on," she said.

That was something Streever noted as well.

"It's so important to call in," Streever said of the beluga find. "Everyone's trying to figure out what's killing these whales."