Beluga whales are highly social, gregarious animals.
They squeal, squeak, and chirp, which is why sailors long ago called them “sea canaries.” Of the five Alaskan stocks, the Cook Inlet beluga stock is the smallest and most isolated from other beluga whales. This population has declined over an estimated 75% and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) listed it as endangered in 2008. The most recent status report is that only 331 Cook Inlet belugas remain.
Cook Inlet belugas were once a valuable part of the regional Alaska Native subsistence diet, but their population has declined rapidly. NOAA believes this was most likely due to unregulated hunting at a level that this small population could not sustain. Although the hunt has been suspended since 2005, the whale population has not recovered as expected and Defenders and others continue to work with NOAA and other partners to understand what is limiting its recovery.
Defenders of Wildlife has been fighting for Cook Inlet beluga whales for years. We and our partners petitioned to get the Cook Inlet beluga whale listed as an endangered species in 2007 and pushed for designation of over 3,000 square miles of critical habitat in April 2011. We also funded the NOAA’s Cook Inlet Beluga Scientific Sightings data template and Best Practices and Definitions booklet - a critical tool to house relevant data in one accessible format.
Defenders is a partner of the Alaska Beluga Whale Monitoring Partnership. We are working with citizen scientist volunteers to monitor belugas at multiple locations throughout Cook Inlet. We cohost the most industrialized site in the Inlet, Ship Creek, located at the Port of Alaska.
Defenders serves on the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Recovery team and helped create the species’ recovery plan. We track and comment on projects and activities that may impact recovery efforts. Along with Friends of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge, we helped fund and launch the Anchorage Coastal Beluga Survey in 2008 and in 2017 we helped create the popular annual ‘Belugas Count!’ program to engage and inform local residents about Cook Inlet belugas.
The potential impacts Defenders and others are monitoring include: noise and physical habitat changes associated with construction projects and oil and gas development; changes in prey availability, changes in habitat due to climate change, predation by killer whales, pollution and contaminants and vessel traffic.
Endangered Species Act
IUCN Red List
Check out the Recovery Plan for Beluga Whales. Participate in community science projects like the Photo ID Project and ‘Belugas Count!’ to help monitor beluga whales. Report any stranded beluga whale to the Alaska Marine Mammal Stranding Network, (877) 925-7773. Provide input to NOAA or other agencies and to your elected state and federal representatives on proposed actions in beluga habitat that may impact their recovery.
Beluga whales are distributed throughout seasonally ice-covered arctic and subarctic waters. Genetic research has determined that there are five beluga whale populations within U.S. waters: Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay, eastern Bering Sea, eastern Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea.
Most recently, scientists determined in 2019 that the population size is between 250 and 317 animals, with a most likely estimate of 279 animals.
Belugas congregate and travel in groups from 2-3 to as many as several hundred. Some are migratory within their limited range, while others remain residents of a particular area.
Belugas use sound to find their prey. They also use sound to communicate and navigate by producing a variety of clicks, chirps and whistles.
Young belugas are usually dark grey in color. The grey steadily lightens as they grow up - reaching their permanent white color by the age of seven for females and nine for males. Calves nurse for about two years.
Mating Season: Late winter - early spring
Gestation: 15 months
Number of offspring: 1 calf is born at a time. But it is not uncommon to see a mother with a mix of younger and older siblings.
Beluga whales are opportunistic feeders in the water column and on the seabed – they can dive to at least 2,000 feet. They feed on salmon, eulachon, tomcod, smelt, char, rainbow sole, whitefish, saffron and arctic cod, herring, shrimp, mussels, octopus, crabs, clams, mussels, snails and sandworms.