Anyone who has ever waited hours in the cold rain and wind along the shores of Cook Inlet for a glimpse of a beluga will attest that these whales are worth celebrating. Under normal circumstances, Defenders, partners and volunteers band together every year in person for for Belugas Count! This year, the annual Beluga's Count! event was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions, so instead of coming out to look for belugas, we brought belugas to you. With some creativity and help from partners like Beluga Whale Alliance, Belugapalooza was born! This online three-day event featured a virtual paint night, movies, chats from experts and even a check-in with Tyonek, the baby beluga who was rescued from Cook Inlet in 2017.
The Cook Inlet beluga is an endangered population of whales in southcentral Alaska facing a lot of hurdles that threaten its road to recovery. A virtual Belugapalooza event was a perfect way to educate people about the belugas and invite people to become advocates in spite of the restrictions of COVID-19.
The first evening was a fun-filled paint night led by local Alaskan artist Kari Becker, who taught us about proportions, design and mixing colors. During a short drying period, Defenders’ Alaska Marine Representative Katy Nalven gave a short presentation about basic beluga biology and an overview of Defenders’ beluga program. Several participants were happy to have joined: “We laughed and laughed the whole time and we learned about Cook Inlet belugas.” “We are looking forward to the next night of Belugapalooza!” Defenders recorded the event so anyone can paint a beluga and learn about our Cook Inlet belugas at their leisure. We plan on hosting additional virtual paint nights, so stay tuned with our Alaska team to find out more.
The second evening kicked-off with Georgia Aquarium sharing some of its latest and greatest research. Research from reputable aquariums, like the Georgia Aquarium, can help inform other research about belugas in the wild. We also released Defenders’ new Beluga StoryMap. A story map is a visual, interactive and narrative way to tell the story of a species. Next, we premiered a new animated video, a collaborative effort of Beluga Whale Alliance, Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Defenders, to increase awareness of the plight of the Cook Inlet belugas.
For the grand finale on the third day, Tyonek, the rescued beluga calf currently cared for by SeaWorld San Antonio, Texas, joined us for an update of his life since his rescue in 2017. The evening also celebrated the 2020 fall beluga monitoring season with updates from each group that participated in the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Program including Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Beluga Whale Alliance and Kenai Peninsula College.
We’re looking forward to many more Belugapaloozas as a way to stay connected with beluga-enthusiasts in Alaska and beyond. Stay tuned as we work to turn Belugapalooza into an annual online beluga celebration and host additional paint nights about our iconic Alaska wildlife. And hopefully next season we will be able to resume community science monitoring efforts and meet everyone in person!