Category Archives: whales

Beluga aids science — Students help with necropsy of whale found off Nikiski

By Naomi Klouda

Photo courtesy of Dr. Debbie Boege-Tobin. From left, Mark Tanski, Anthony Davis, Dr. Debbie Boege-Tobin, Dr. Kathy Burek-Huntington, Nicole Abeln, Jennifer Anderson and Rachael Rooney stand with a beluga the group will necropsy, as it arrives in Homer.

Homer Tribune

An adult beluga whale male found floating in Cook Inlet on Oct. 4 by the crew aboard the M/V Perseverance is the third dead whale found this summer.

The Cook Inlet Spill Prevention Response tug was underway in Nikiski Bay when Charlie Parish and his crew found it.

“They were in between rig runs, in the course of a day’s work they travel to the platforms to drop off supplies,” said Mike Watson, CISPRI operations manager. “It was simply floating, they saw it and looked it over. It didn’t appear to be dead very long.”

Parish reported the beluga death to the National Marine Fisheries Service stranding network.

“They asked us if we would be willing to recover the whale. The boat has a crane and a large work deck on back, so they were able to load it aboard and brought it to the OSK dock in Nikiski,” Watson said.

Barbara Mahoney, the assistant stranding coordinator for NMFS, called for a necropsy. Kachemak Bay Campus assistant professor of biology Debbie Boege-Tobin and her class were able to drive to Nikiski beach to assist the veterinarian pathologist Kathy Burek-Huntington in the necropsy.

“We were lucky enough that CISPRI reported the whale, and lucky still again that they had the equipment and skills to put it on their deck,” Mahoney said.

If the crew hadn’t brought the beluga to shore, it would have floated the rough Cook Inlet currents until perhaps eventually getting beached. By then, it would be too far decomposed to be useful to the studies looking into what is stressing the endangered Cook Inlet beluga pod.

The Cook Inlet whales, identified as a genetically isolated stock, were listed as endangered in 2008. Their population was estimated to be as many as 1,300 in the late 1970s. Harvest of the whales was stopped in 1995, but their population has continued to decline. The NMFS’s population estimate in June 2011 was 284, down from the June 2010 estimate of 340. The decline has slowed, but the population still has not begun to grow, despite having the added protections — in designation of critical habitat area, for example — that an endangered listing entails.

“We’re looking for causes of death, and overall health of the whales,” Mahoney said.

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Watching out for whale science — ID project utilizes citizens to help track sightings

By Naomi Klouda

Photos courtesy of Homer Tribune. A humpback whale extends its tail from the waters of Kachemak Bay in view of the Rainbow Connection boat. Rainbow Tours has been helping catalog 500 humpbacks visiting the bay.

Homer Tribune

People aboard the Rainbow Connection were granted a delightful sight last week when the humpback whales Bullet and Tophat appeared in Kachemak Bay for the first time since 2006-07.

Rainbow Tours, which has a catalog of 500 humpback whales, was able to spot the individuals by the identifying scars on their flukes.

“It was exciting to see two of the six of the whales coming into the bay were returning,” though late May can be an early show for the whales. said Ginger Moore, of Rainbow Tours.

The whales’ genders can’t be discerned from a boat, but one had a calf alongside, so it might be assumed that either Bullet or Tophat is female.

The crew of the Rainbow Connection and Rainbow Tours, owned by Jack and Fran Montgomery, began keeping track and identifying humpbacks about 16 years ago. Each time a whale is spotted and photographed, a record is made of the flukes’ characteristics.

“Our whales are divided into four categories — W, X, Y, and Z — based on the distribution of pigment on the ventral side of their flukes,” Moore said.

On the website,, it explains further that orca or other predator tooth rakes and barnacle scars can accumulate over time, basic pigmentation is individual and forever.

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Rare whale washes up in Tutka Bay — Stejneger’s beaked whale unusual in inlet

By Naomi Klouda

Photo courtesy of Homer Tribune. A worker hauls to shore the body of what is thought to be a Stejneger’s beaked whale in Tutka Bay last week.

Homer Tribune

A whale found floating dead in Tutka Bay last week may be a rare Stejneger’s beaked whale.

If so, professor Debbie Boege-Tobin and her students enrolled in the Semester By the Bay Program at the Kenai Peninsula College’s Kachemak Bay Campus are bestowed with an unusual opportunity.

Boege-Tobin and three students in the program observed the necropsy of the whale Saturday. They gained an up-close and personal look at the 13-foot adult female. The cause of death is unknown.

Dave Seaman, a local boatwright, was in Tutka Bay on Friday when he spotted the whale near the shore.

“It was leaning against the rocks. I grabbed a hold of the tail and wrapped a rope around it then towed it to a dock where I tied it up,” Seaman said. “It didn’t smell too bad, and it was all in one piece. It had a few skin abrasions from rolling on the rocks, and a strange look, like a porpoise’s face pinched into a beak.”

Seaman alerted Angela Doroff of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, who in turn contacted Boege-Tobin.

“Not much is known about the Stejneger’s beaked whale. It is a deep-diving species that they believe feeds almost exclusively on squid. We aren’t out of their range, but it’s unusual to see one here,” Boege-Tobin said. “We had the Homer Veterinary Clinic donate services to X-ray the jaw. The way to distinguish it from other whales is to study their tooth and jaw morphology.” Continue reading

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Death’s a beach — 3 beached whales create busy summer for marine mammal network

By Jenny Neyman

Photos courtesy of Brent Johnson. A female, juvenile humpback whale, showing signs of killer whale predation, rests on the beach at Brent and Judy Johnson’s set-net site near Clam Gulch earlier this month. The whale was floating near where the Johnsons were going to set their nets, so Brent Johnson hauled it ashore. It quickly became a visitors draw.

Redoubt Reporter

As a commercial fisherman, Brent Johnson wants to haul in a big catch. But at 28.5 feet long and about as many tons, what he found in the water Aug. 7 off his family set-net site near Clam Gulch was more than he bargained for.

Johnson was preparing for an early morning Aug. 8 fishing opening when he spotted something that looked a little like an overturned boat floating by about a half mile out in Cook Inlet. Upon investigation he instead found a dead whale.

Johnson said he only knows enough about whales to know it wasn’t a beluga. Beyond that he was stumped, but he did know that he didn’t want the whale floating into his nets when they were set the next morning, so he towed the whale to shore and landed it about 50 feet from the family’s fishing cabin. Any undivided attention due to other duties by anyone in camp at that point was quickly diverted to the whale.

“The crew has clicked pictures like the thing was a supermodel,” Johnson said.

After all, it was hard to miss, both in size and smell.

“I told Brent, ‘Could you have at least pulled it in several hundred feet from us?’” said Brent’s wife, Judy, on Aug. 8. “It’s next to our cabin, and last night it washed closer to us. After tonight it might be right in our driveway.” Continue reading

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Beluga issue nets large reply — Critical habitat testimony stretches into the thousands

By Naomi Klouda

Homer Tribune

The testimony on whether or not to designate most of Cook Inlet as beluga habitat is now in, with some 91,668 responses to the public comment period that ended March 3.

The comments will be available to the public shortly at the National Marine Fisheries Service Web site, said spokesperson Sheela McLean. It is important to note that the number of responses didn’t calculate how many made repeat testimony. However, the numbers from organizations were noted, with Sierra Club accounting for 43,339 responses. The Natural Resource Development Council — countering the idea of designating Cook Inlet as critical habitat — weighed in with 39,939 responses.

NMFS counted 10 responses from North Star Terminal and Stevedore Co., LLC, which operates the Port of Anchorage, and 219 from postcard mailings. It also received 13 “unknown” letters and received 7,500 from a signature petition.

The NMFS is expecting to issue its decision sometime in October, McLean said.

Here is a sampling of commentary that came from residents in Homer and/or the Kenai Peninsula:

  • Roland Maw of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association: “It became apparent to us as an industry that belugas were declining 15 or more years ago. NMFS came to us as a group, and to the set net group, and asked us if we would have some observers on board our vessels and you have the results of that. We had observers to the tune of about 9,000 hours on our vessels and beaches. There were no sightings, no entanglements and certainly no deaths. We have been trying to be proactive, even though our government hasn’t been … This is a difficult problem to work through but we’ll get through it and we’ll be OK.”
  • Ken Tarbox, Soldotna: “I worked from 1980 to 2000 for Fish and Game. In that capacity, I flew over Cook Inlet and observed whales. I support the critical habitat designation identified, with a couple of exceptions. One, it is not far enough up the Susitna River. The whales would go much further up the Susitna River than what is designated. Two is the Kenai River. Even recently, since 2000, I’ve seen whales moving two to three miles up from the bridge. I assure you the lower Kenai is still used by belugas. I’ve seen as many as 30 in there in the spring and in the fall. Where we are not seeing them is during the July period when we historically used to see them.”
  • Harold Shepherd, director Center for Water Advocacy: “I am here to testify in support of proposed designation of critical habitat for beluga on behalf of our members, which includes native villages and tribal governments in Alaska including the Marine Mammal Council and the Eklutna, Kenaitze, Chickaloon, Ninilchik, Seldovia and Tyonek tribes… Many tribal organizations can be of significant assistance in implementation and support in helping keep the belugas from jeopardy.”
  • Beaver Nelson: “I have lived here since 1965. As a commercial fisherman I’ve spent a lot of time in Kachemak Bay and have observed belugas. Up until mid 1980’s there was a group of belugas that would come in every fall. All through October they appeared to feed on smelt (little wiggling clouds you could see in the grass). There would be 40-50 belugas in that area steadily. In mid to late 1980’s the belugas began to disappear. They were gone in a two to three year period to where there just weren’t belugas there anymore. You very rarely saw orcas back then, but in the late 1980’s the orcas became way more common. Even now if you go up in October you will see orcas up there hunting seal. My feeling is belugas are a candy bar for orca. They found a good food source and drove the belugas out of there. It is a risky venture for a beluga to move through there to run a gauntlet of orcas which seem to be increasing in abundance.” Continue reading

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Whale of a phenomenon — Fishermen reporting seeing more marine mammals than usual

By Patrice Kohl
Redoubt Reporter

Anglers taking halibut and king salmon charter trips out of Deep Creek this spring got extra bang out of their buck as fishing trips turned into inadvertent whale watching trips. The word on the saltwater among sportfishermen off the lower peninsula has been whales, whales and more whales this spring.

Charter boat fishermen who have fished in the area 20-plus years say they have never seen anything like it. Fishermen have been spotting whales in shallow and deep water in an area roughly as far south as Anchor Point and as far north as Deep Creek, and particularly in shallow waters near Happy Valley and Twin Falls.

It’s not uncommon to see a few whales passing through the area in late May and the first few days of June. But this spring, area fishermen regularly spotted whales, some of which stuck around for long periods of time and swam much closer to shore than they had in the past. As of Friday, Walt Barton, owner of Kenai Alaska Fish On, said he had seen whales on every saltwater trip he’s done this year, other than his first two trips he took in early May.

“They’ve been very, very consistent. Since the 15th of May I’ve seen them every day I’ve been out and that’s not normal,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I’ve never seen it like this. There’s some kind of a phenomena out there and I couldn’t tell you what.”
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