By Naomi Klouda
“Since I ran every day, I saw the belugas regularly. They were usually diving for fish. I ran along the beach below the bluff where I lived and the belugas would swim along next to me at high tide. And they would be singing while I ran. They liked to play, so they would keep pace with me for a short period of time, maybe 10 minutes, and then swim on. I remember thinking it was cool when I saw them.” — Unidentified interview
Beluga stories abound, and so does mystery on the whales’ basic habits — until a newly released report filled in many details. Cook Inlet beluga whales steered clear of the southern waters beyond Kachemak Bay, where orca whales pose a threat.
A single beluga was seen swimming with porpoises in 2006 off the Glacier Spit. It was seen again in Halibut Cove. That was one of the last live beluga sightings in the bay, said Janet Klein, a historian who conducted interviews compiled in “An Oral History of Habitat Use by Cook Inlet Belugas in Waters of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.” Authors, including Klein, were Ian M. Dutton, Karen J. Cain, Ricky Deel, Rebekka Federer, Hillary LeBail and Joseph Hunt. The report is now available to the public through libraries, but will not be sold in stores.
“We were really going back in time because we were trying to ascertain habitat use and population distribution,” Klein said. “The more recent memories were not the main part of discussion, but we did record them. There have been few and far between. We were looking for historic information.”
Memories containing information not fully known about Cook Inlet’s pod of belugas were collected in 280 interviews. For example, their range. It makes sense that belugas would see the bay as the southern edge of their boundaries, but that wasn’t firmly established. Klein interviewed two people in Seldovia who, in the 1970s, witnessed a small pod of belugas poking their noses in and then heading back out. Other than that, such sightings were extremely rare.
“Another woman was flying to Nanwalek and looked down and saw white animals. She didn’t know what they were at the time. Those are the only sighting of belugas on the south shore. The north shore is more desired habitat,” Klein said. “The more southern waters are where the orcas are — they are a definite threat to belugas.”
Unlike Homer sightings that were more sparse, other areas of the Kenai Peninsula recorded more extended lengths of time when belugas were sighted.
The project was funded by the Kenai Peninsula Borough in April 2011, through the Alaska SeaLife Center, as part of a suite of five projects designed to provide the borough with a greater insight into the status and management needs of Cook Inlet beluga whales.
“CIBW are the subject of much public interest and concern due both to their intrinsic cultural values, particularly for Cook Inlet natives who traditionally hunted CIBW, and for their wider non-use values,” states the book’s summary. “The 2008 listing of CIBW as endangered species has further stimulated interest in better understanding the factors involved in their decline and factors which may be inhibiting their recovery.
“As with many endangered species, and most Alaskan marine mammals generally, relatively little is known about CIBW ecology and habitat requirements.”
The project addressed that critical gap in knowledge about the historical abundance, distribution and use of habitat by CIBW in waters of, and adjacent to, the borough before 1994, when systematic beluga surveys first began. The project team contacted some 250 potential public informants and received usable information from 214 people in person (or by phone) and a further 12 informants who provided inputs online. They also videotaped interviews with 23 key people, and will make those interviews available to other researchers and students at the Kachemak Bay Campus library.
“This was a far greater response rate than anticipated. Many informants who contacted the team noted that there have been relatively few opportunities to tell their story. We were particularly pleased that we were able to engage with many pioneer and native community members,” the summary stated.
These are the first assessments of changes for belugas in the waters of the peninsula and they cover the past 80 years. Many informants provided previously undocumented knowledge about beluga behavior and interactions with humans.
With few exceptions, the interviews describe “a clear and unequivocal contraction” of beluga range and a dramatic reduction in the population. Many lamented the fact they may never again see runs of thousands of belugas in Cook Inlet. Others expressed a more direct concern for the culture of future generations of Athabascan people for whom beluga whales are a key resource. Those interviewed speculated about the causes of decline, ranging from physical changes in Cook Inlet to human influences such as coastal development.
Klein, who formerly was at the Pratt Museum and has lived in Homer 34 years, had a knowledge base to launch her portion of the project, conducting interviews from Ninilchik to Homer. She approached people she knew to have lived in the area for many years, such as Walter Jackinsky at Ninilchik, Frank Mullen, who grew up in Soldotna, Nancy Lord, of Homer, the author of “Beluga Days,” and pilots long at work in the area.
“We would see the belugas in spring, summer and fall. Yet, belugas have been seen year-round in Kachemak Bay, in every month of the year and, particularly, at the head of the bay in the winter,” Klein said. “This was news to me. People used to see them among ice floes up there every month of the winter.”
Ultimately, this information goes to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Marine Fisheries Service to help formulate a Beluga Recovery Plan, as mandated under the Endangered Species Act. Drawing the range of beluga movement helps draw habitat boundaries that can then be protected.