Springtime belugas return to Cook Inlet, chasing hooligan and attracting scientists

As the dance that is the turning of the seasons quickens pace from the slow winter waltz to the sprightly jig of spring, wildlife picks up its pace, as well. On the Kenai Peninsula, bears emerge from dens, moose drop calves and caribou migrate to their summer territory. For those with an eye for it, a more intricate choreography can be seen.

Unseen beneath the water, hooligan are returning to the rivers, drawing in more visible, yet still special-to-see, visitors -- beluga whales.

"In the spring and fall we have belugas coming in. This is the time of year, and the sightings have gone up," said Ken Tarbox, with the Keen Eye Birders group and a retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist.

Belugas tend to hang out in the mouth of the Kenai River around river miles three and four, although they've been known to go past the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge farther upriver. This year they've been sighted as far upstream as Kenai Landing, and also pushing up Cook Inlet toward Nikiski.

"They're obviously coming in here, poking around, feeding and doing their thing," Tarbox said. "We've counted as many as 30 whales before, but this year I think the peak count so far is 12 in one group going up the river."

Not only is it exciting to catch a glimpse of the white undulations breaking the water surface, the sightings have scientific value, as well. The National Marine Fisheries Service catalogs all beluga sightings in Cook Inlet, with as much detail as offered -- time, date, location of sighting, number of whales seen, number of calves seen, activity, direction of travel, etc. But before the information gets to the agency, Tamara McGuire with LGL Alaska hopes the reports come her way to aid in her continuing photo-identification projects of belugas in Cook Inlet.

Belugas bear distinctive marks -- scars from injuries or infections --that stay with them throughout their lives, making them visually distinct and identifiable. Since 2005, McGuire has photographed inlet belugas, building a database and distinguishing individuals by the marks on their left and right sides so that more insight can be gleaned from future sightings, such as about their habitat and migratory patterns.


The project has primarily focused on Upper Cook Inlet -- around Anchorage, Knik Arm, Turnagain Arm and the Susitna area. In 2011, the Kenai Peninsula Borough divvied up federal money it was granted to gather information about belugas in borough waters to fund several scientific projects. Among them was LGL expanding its photo identification project to the borough-area waters of mid Cook Inlet.

From 2011 to 2013, the company identified 85 belugas in borough-area waters, with 78 percent found in Turnagain Arm, 22 percent in Chickaloon Bay/South Fire Island and 9 percent in the Kenai River delta.

One of the questions LGL hoped to settle is whether belugas around the Kenai River in the spring and fall were a separate group from those that frequent the northern inlet. And indeed, they are not.

"The whales that we were able to identify from the Kenai River, we were able to match them up with a lot of the whales we see up by Anchorage. The ones we were able to identify look like they were the same ones, so that was pretty interesting," McGuire said.

Only three of the whales seen around the Kenai were new to the catalog. The other 82 were re-sightings of whales previously identified farther north. But though the whales were the same, their combinations were not.

"Once we were able to really zoom in on photos and look at the marks we realized the individuals were ones we already recognized, but the group composition would change. It was not always the same group, the individuals in the group composition would change from time to time," she said.

Researchers also documented several calves in borough-area waters. Of the 85 belugas documented in 2011 to 2013, 58 whales (68 percent) were presumed to be reproductive females, as they were seen with a calf close in tow at least once in 2005 to 2011 -- and 31 of those were photographed with calves in more than one year.

"We saw calves down there in the Kenai River and off of the beach. One had been a calf we had seen up by the Susitna River years ago, and we saw it as an older individual with its mom down by the Kenai River, so it was exciting to see a whale that we recognized as a youngster and see it growing up down there," McGuire said.

Over the three years of the project, beluga sightings established some consistent patterns, as far as when and where the whales were likely to be seen.

"What was remarkable to me is they were pretty much the same in the three years of the study . . . It's remarkable how strong they are year from year," she said.

There were a few anomaly sightings, though, including belugas seen in deeper waters near Kalgin Island and the Tyonek oil and gas platform in November and December, two sightings of a beluga in the Kenai River in February 2013, and of a group of belugas south of Ninilchik in March 2013.

Public participation was vital in the project. LGL asked the public to submit sightings through its website, www.cookinletbelugas.com. That way McGuire could make targeted trips by boat or plane to photograph the whales when they were likely to still be around.

"It really helped me to plan when to do the photo ID trips because the presence of the whales down there is still really spotty. You could have a group down there one day and then nothing the next — so having that information from people that live and work down there really helped with being able to time that," she said.

Sightings came from fishermen, pilots, the media, law enforcement officers, large vessel operators, tourists, biologists, educators, environmentalists, oil industry employees and other residents.

And McGuire hopes that the sightings reports keep coming. Though the borough funding has expired, McGuire would still like to keep tabs on belugas in the Kenai area as much as her remaining funding sources allow. But to do that, she needs eyes on the Kenai.

"I'm trying to find ways to expand that into Kenai, especially since we got the momentum going and made good contact. We were thrilled to have gotten the opportunity and do some studies down there and really got things going, and then it was like, 'Oh, darn,' (the money's gone)," McGuire said. "I'm still keeping track, though. It's great -- I've gotten a lot of people calling in the reports, a lot of volunteers down along the river and up by Nikiski, so we're still getting reports from them."

To report a beluga sighting, submit it online or call McGuire at 907-562-3339. McGuire then forwards all reports to NMFS for its records.

If a whale is seen dead or in distress, though, immediately report it to the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network hotline at 877-925-7773.