beluga whales


Those who live close to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers know belugas sometimes feed there. But it’s been a mystery how many whales actually travel through those waterways, particularly in the spring.

This year, a large team of volunteer observers counted for the first time how many Cook Inlet belugas passed through the rivers between March and May. They counted just over 220 belugas.


The beluga population in Cook Inlet is not bouncing back and scientists are trying to figure out why.

First, they need to know more about the population. A key part of that is knowing how old the whales are.

Ocean Alert

You don’t have to know much about what you’re seeing to make the Ocean Alert app work. Say you’re driving past Turnagain Arm and you see a beluga.

“You can say, ‘I saw a whale.’ Not have to know what species it is or anything like that," said Jacob Levenson, a biologist with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. “Or you can say, ‘I saw this whale, here’s a picture of its tail,’ and then there’s an artificial intelligence backend, Flukebook, that tells you if we’ve seen that whale before.”

Levenson and other BOEM scientists are using the new Ocean Alert app to crowdsource sightings of marine megafauna that will inform the agency’s work in federal waters.


The chief scientist at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut is leading a pilot study on the stressors impacting beluga whales in Cook Inlet.

Tracy Romano and her research team received a $10,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to look into genes that help Cook Inlet belugas, a critically endangered population of whales, respond to environmental and manmade stressors.

“And so we’re trying to ground truth some of these molecular sequences and then look at the genes in the skin and compare skin biopsies that we have from the endangered Cook Inlet belugas, but then also some skin biopsies that we’ve archived over the years from relatively healthy belugas from the Chukchi Sea and Bristol Bay, Alaska," Romano said.


The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has received a $1.1 million grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service to continue studying Cook Inlet beluga whales. The study will include more detailed information about the whales’ habitat and diet.

The Cook Inlet population of belugas is classified as endangered by the federal government. The most recent count estimated that there are about 279 of them left, which is down from the 2016 count of 328. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why the whales are declining, but the Fish and Game study is intended to help shed some more light on that question.


Eagle-eyed observers are wanted this spring to track creatures of a non-avian persuasion. The Alaska Beluga Monitoring Partnership is recruiting volunteers to keep a lookout in Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm from March 15 through May 15.

Madison Kosma is the coordinator of the partnership, which brings together environmental nonprofit organizations, federal agencies and volunteers to maximize the amount of information gathered on endangered Cook Inlet belugas.

“We already have these community members that are out there that are telling us about these sightings that they have. There are only so many scientists, and so if we can gather the force of community, we can know so much more about what’s going on with this population and contribute to the conservation efforts and databases that are already established,” Kosma said.

Citizen scientists wrap up Fall Beluga count

Nov 15, 2019


Belgua whale watching has wrapped up for the season. The organized, scientific variety anyway. The fall beluga count administered by several government agencies and volunteer groups around Cook Inlet formally finished its work for 2019 last week. KDLL’s Shaylon Cochran spoke with Kenai resident Ed Schmitt of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance about the group’s work documenting the endangered belguas, whose numbers still hover below 350 animals.