Beluga whales spotted 550 miles up Yukon River in Interior Alaska

A small pod of beluga whales was spotted Sunday morning by a group of people heading to Ruby on the Yukon River, hundreds of miles from the Bering Sea.

Clifford Cleaver said he was heading up the Yukon River Sunday morning when he, his wife and several other family members saw a small pod of belugas. Cleaver was returning to Ruby from the Interior village of Galena and was about a half-mile from Dainty Island when he saw something "pretty strange," he said from Ruby Monday.

"I was driving the boat and happened to look over and … see them come up real quick," Cleaver said.

At least four whales were in the river, Cleaver said.

"They were kind of going pretty fast and we were floating right next to them," he said.

At about halfway between the villages of Galena and Ruby, the whales were about 550 miles from the mouth of the Yukon River.

Cleaver stopped the boat to take some pictures.

"We figured no one was gonna believe us," he said.

Cleaver had heard that some whales had been spotted near Kaltag several weeks before. While he's heard stories of belugas making their way up the Yukon, he's never believed it, and he's never seen any whales in the river before.

"It was pretty extraordinary," said Marie Cleaver, Clifford's wife. "Not something you would see on the Yukon."

Lori Quakenbush, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that the department gets reports of belugas traveling far upriver from time to time.

"We expect they're just following pulses of salmon upstream," Quakenbush said.

Belugas can survive in either salt water or fresh water, Quakenbush said. The animals can swim in relatively shallow waters, and since they use echolocation to navigate their surroundings, they don't need to see through the muddy waters of the Yukon or Tanana to make their way upriver.

"It's not really a problem for them to come up the bigger rivers like the Yukon if there's something for them to eat," Quakenbush said.

While it's not every year that Fish and Game hears of belugas in the Interior, there have been scattered reports throughout the decades: A group of whales was spotted in Tanana in 1982. Four belugas were seen near Fort Yukon in 1993. A young beluga's carcass was found between Tanana and Fairbanks in 2006.

"I think it happens pretty regularly" but often isn't reported to Fish and Game, Quakenbush said.

The belugas will likely turn around when the food supply dries up, Quakenbush said. They may also be harvested by residents on the river.

"There are certainly a lot of people who like eating belugas," she said.

The whales can be seen coming up for air around seconds 8 and 21 of Cleaver's video:

Laurel Andrews

Laurel Andrews was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in October 2018.