By Naomi Klouda
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.