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Public beluga counting event returns tomorrow

A Cook Inlet beluga whale swimming with a calf.
Chris Garner
Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson
A Cook Inlet beluga whale swimming with a calf.

After a two-year break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tomorrow, Sept. 17, marks the return of Belugas Count!, a public science event that aims to catalog Cook Inlet’s beluga whale population.

The event is hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, and will take place across 14 public viewing stations in communities from Anchorage down to the lower Kenai Peninsula. Belugas Count! is an all-day event where community members are encouraged to watch for belugas in the water, help count them, and hopefully photograph them.

“There’s not really anywhere else in the U.S. where you can drive on the road system in a city and go see beluga whales like this, or an endangered whale at all,” Jill Seymore, the Cook Inlet Beluga Recovery Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries, said. She said getting the public involved is an important part of keeping track of the Cook Inlet beluga population.

“There are many more members of the public than there are beluga scientists out on shore at any given time,” she said.

Cook Inlet beluga whales have been listed as endangered since 2008 and scientists estimate there are fewer than 300 belugas left. Their population has declined nearly 80% since 1979. Researchers are looking into several reasons for their continued decline, including human activity, noise and climate change, but they haven’t reached any conclusions..

NOAA Fisheries designates Cook Inlet beluga whales as one of their “Species in the Spotlight,” meaning that they’re in need of a concerted conservation effort from organizations in order to survive. Seymore said the event this weekend is one such effort.

“One of the biggest challenges we have with this population is that we don’t have a definitive reason why they are continuing to decline despite a lot of conservation effort and research that’s been done,” she said. “So making the public aware of ways that they can be engaged and generally aware that there’s this really unique population of endangered whales is just one of the main reasons why we host this event.”

There will be educational activities at each of the viewing stations. The event usually draws about 2,000 people.

There are three beluga viewing locations on the Kenai Peninsula — one in Homer at the Baycrest Overlook, one off of the Hope Highway, and one right here in Kenai, at the Scenic Bluff Overlook, next to the Kenai Senior Center. There are also several locations off of Turnagain Arm. NOAA asks that individuals bring their own binoculars.

At the Kenai Location, staff from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago will be at the viewing station all morning to interact with the public and look for belugas. Beluga whales swim by this location on their way into the Kenai River, where they hunt for salmon. They use the river year-round, but are most present in the spring and fall, and have been spotted traveling as far as 14 miles up the Kenai River.

“Pretty much on a daily basis at this point we are getting reports of belugas in and around that area, so it’s gonna be a great station, both in terms of potential to see the endangered whales, as well as to interact with a variety of different species experts,” Seymour said.

The Kenai viewing station will be open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The high tide is at 10:04 a.m. The Hope Highway station is open from 11:30 to 3:30. The event is free.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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