Cook Inlet Beluga

Chirping, squawking, whistling, clicking and trilling, beluga whales “talk” to one another as they move about their murky marine habitat. This birdlike vocal repertoire has earned these whales the nickname “canaries of the sea.” And like a canary in a coal mine, belugas are a great indicator of the health of their surroundings, in this case the Arctic marine ecosystem and everything from its fish to its water quality.

While most belugas migrate south in the winter when sea ice advances, one population has stayed put in Cook Inlet off the shores of Anchorage, Alaska. This population of curious and charismatic 15-foot-long white, gray and sometimes pink creatures blends in with the shadows and rippling waves of water made cloudy by silt deposited from melting glaciers. Between the turbidity of their inlet habitat and their dwindling numbers, Cook Inlet belugas are often difficult to study and remain largely a mystery to scientists.

Researchers do know the Cook Inlet belugas are genetically distinct from all belugas. Their advanced vocalizations and smaller size are adaptations that allow them to better navigate the inlet’s low-visibility waters. But the latest annual population count turned up just 328 individuals—down from an estimated 1,300 in the 1970s—and biologists aren’t sure why.

Development, oil and gas drilling, water and noise pollution, prey availability and the beluga’s own slow reproductive rate could all be major limiting factors for the Cook Inlet population. Without new research, however, it’s difficult to recover these whales. We need to call for answers before these pale giants disappear into the deep forever.

—Kerry Skiff

Making a Difference

Defenders has been fighting for Cook Inlet belugas for years, working with a coalition of conservation groups, scientists and citizens to get these whales protected under the Endangered Species Act in 2008, focusing efforts to establish critical habitat and serving on the National Marine Fisheries Service Cook Inlet beluga whale recovery team to provide input on the recovery plan, which was released in 2017. In addition, we have funded and helped organize training for citizen scientists who helped with the Anchorage coastal beluga population survey.

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