Hakai Magazine

illustration of belugas
The small group of belugas that live in Cook Inlet, Alaska, have been genetically and geographically isolated for thousands of years. The inlet’s silty rivers and high tides turn the water an opaque brown, through which these white whales swim like ghosts. Illustration by Mark Garrison

The Baffling Case of the Belugas that Won’t Bounce Back

What’s keeping Cook Inlet belugas from thriving?

Authored by

by Amorina Kingdon

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The tide is low as Paul Wade inches the boat toward shore near the Chickaloon River flats. He checks the depth finder every few seconds. The waters of Cook Inlet are opaque with silt and, though the shore is a hundred meters away, only two meters separate the boat’s hull from the muddy bottom. As he navigates, Wade unzips his orange flotation suit and twists a scarf about his head against sunburn. It’s been over an hour’s frigid ride from Anchorage, Alaska, but out of the wind the September afternoon is balmy and the calm water is burnished with the light of a low sun. The only sounds are the water lapping on the hull, interrupted every few seconds by the loud blatting of a trumpet, several cats fighting in a culvert, and a cacophony of farts.

The source of the noise? Sixty or so wild beluga whales. They swim around the boat, surfacing here and there to breathe, like dumplings bobbing in a pot of roiling water. Sailors dubbed belugas the “canaries of the sea” for the staggering variety of vocalizations they make with their blowhole when they come up for air. Some pearly gray heads emit a delicate whistling, but other exhalations sound as juvenile as kids blowing bubbles in chocolate milk. Wade, a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Marine Mammal Laboratory, has spent enough time with the Cook Inlet belugas that he can recognize three distinct fart-like noises the whales make with their blowhole. “There’s the proud fart,” he says, ticking them off. “There’s the embarrassed fart. And then the triple fart.” Sure enough, a three-note sequence echoes across the water like a flatulent riposte.

“I dare you to do a poster on the [fart sounds],” Tamara McGuire says, grinning at the thought of displaying such research at a scientific conference. McGuire, crouched up on the rigid inflatable boat’s bow, leads the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Photo-ID Project. She documents individual whales by the scars on their backs. She often coordinates boat trips with Wade. When a beluga surfaces, McGuire’s gaze snaps up and her camera lens whirs.

Only a scientist would deliberately snap fleeting beluga backs instead of the vista around the inflatable. Cook Inlet is a dazzling place. It protrudes 320 kilometers northeast into Alaska just west of Prince William Sound. Glacier-capped mountains ring the shore and birth rivers heavy with fine silt that turns the water as opaque as a latte. At its northern end the inlet forks into two smaller branches, both running eastward: Knik and Turnagain Arms. The city of Anchorage sits on the peninsula between the arms. Both humans and belugas have concentrated in upper Cook Inlet: humans drawn to a sheltered year-round seaport in otherwise ice-bound Alaska; whales to the bounty of food.

Anchorage skyline with Cook Inlet reflection

The city of Anchorage is Alaska’s biggest metropolis. It’s also one of the only easily accessible places in the world to see belugas in their natural habitat. Photo by Rocky Grimes/Alamy Stock Photo

The whales, which grow to about the length of a small sea kayak, like to eat salmon in the rivers that empty into Upper Cook Inlet, but at low tide most of those shallow river mouths emerge as mudflats braided with channels too treacherous for a beluga to navigate without stranding. So they muster here, about 30 kilometers south of Anchorage, just a short swim away from the salmon streams. This broad, sheltered tidal flat stays submerged even at low tide and has a city-block-sized area deep enough for the whales to hang out in.

Here they wait for the flood tide. Wade’s summer field research involves monitoring the whales with drones and using small darts to gather non-lethal biopsies of the belugas’ skin and blubber. He plans his season around daylight low tides so he can find large numbers of them together in places like this special shoreline hangout that he calls the “beluga pool.” This is the year’s last trip. He got his final samples and counts yesterday; McGuire was eager for a few more photos.

The belugas aren’t going to make it too easy. A shimmering gray back cuts the water near the boat, and McGuire raises the camera in readiness. The beluga doesn’t resurface. There’s just a light bump to the boat from beneath, and a few plumes in the silt to trace its movement. Moments later the beluga resurfaces in the distance on the other side.

“They’re like teenagers,” McGuire says, equal parts amused and annoyed. The belugas around the boat are energetic, playful, and goofy looking. They seem so carefree. But they are endangered. Intensive subsistence hunting in the 1990s crashed their number from a small but stable 1,300 to just 380. Since the hunt slowly ground to a stop after 1999, they’ve failed to rebound. And no one is sure why.

Scientists like Wade and McGuire are scrambling to study the Cook Inlet whales and their environment—a challenging prospect. It is calm today but this wedge of the Pacific where these isolated whales spend their lives is usually a churning, frigid, brutal place. Its tidal range—reaching nine meters in its northern extremities—is the world’s fourth largest, generating currents so strong that boats struggle to dock. In the winter, those currents carry chunks of ice. On top of that, whales contend with humans, and that means increasing noise, shrinking salmon runs, and new pollutants like pharmaceuticals that seep into the inlet with Anchorage’s minimally treated sewage. No one thing has yet emerged as the obvious culprit. The researchers are now investigating more complex puzzles, like how the many stressors combine to overwhelm the belugas, and even how the hunt impacted the whales’ intricate social structure. Others are raising awareness above the waves in hopes that public sentiment will spur protective measures. But the solutions are as murky as the water. How do you help a creature when you don’t know what’s wrong?

Map of Cook Inlet

Map data by OpenStreetMap via ArcGIS

A good way of eating beluga, according to David Kroto, land management officer for the Tyonek Native Corporation, is with seal oil, soy sauce, and raw onions. But Kroto hasn’t had it for a while.

The state of Alaska had always allowed a beluga subsistence hunt, but takes increased during the 1980s. By the 1990s reported takes were between 40 and 70 animals a year, and (by some counts) may have reached 100 animals a season. The population plunged. Several Indigenous communities along the shore of the inlet voluntarily stopped their hunt when they realized the belugas’ plight. The village of Tyonek, which lies about 65 kilometers southeast of Anchorage, was among them. The community’s final harvest was around 2004.

Kroto says belugas are a part of his culture, featuring in food, art, and the hunt itself. At some point the community would like to hunt them again. Kroto is sure of one thing: “Belugas aren’t dumb animals,” he says. “I mean, if they’re dying off, there’s got to be a legitimate cause.”

One idea he’s heard discussed is fish shortages. “I know my grandpa had talked about in the past that there weren’t enough food sources for the belugas,” he says. Belugas eat a lot of small critters such as eulachon, crabs, squid, even worms, but their main prey seems to be chinook salmon, which are suffering. The northern Pacific Ocean is warming, epitomized by the Blob of 2014 and 2015, during which a mass of warmer-than-usual water remained at the surface, stressing salmon. That, along with overfishing and other pressures, has led to low runs all along the coast.

Kroto also worries about noise. There are oil and gas platforms all over the inlet, with more than a dozen in the water near Tyonek, his home. The shore adjacent to the village is sparsely populated but the platforms are bustling, supplied by ships and barges at all hours. Kroto can hear them late at night or early in the morning. “They’re actually pretty loud,” he says. “I mean, if I could hear them from the village, the beluga could definitely hear them from the water.”

Oil and gas platforms in Cook Inlet, Alaska

Oil and gas platforms dot the waters of Cook Inlet, Alaska. The platforms and their support infrastructure are a source of income—but also noise, which can be particularly challenging for beluga whales. Photo by P. A. Lawrence, LLC./Alamy Stock Photo

Noise may seem a strange thing to threaten a species’ livelihood. But in 2016, with the whales’ recovery stalled, NOAA named the Cook Inlet belugas a species of special concern and published a recovery plan that classified threats as high, medium, or low concern. Of highest concern were catastrophic events like earthquakes or oil spills, the cumulative impacts of multiple stressors (or “dealing with everything at once”), and noise—the biggest solo factor. The reason noise is such a concern is all in the belugas’ heads.

A beluga rising
from the ocean’s muddy depths
reshapes its head to make a sound
or take a breath.

This stanza opens the poem “What Whales and Infants Know” by Alaskan poet Kim Cornwall, displayed on a placard at a beluga-spotting pullout along the Seward Highway that winds down Turnagain Arm. The lines are pretty and likely accurate. A beluga’s distinctive forehead bulge holds a fatty organ called a melon that, in addition to changing shape to make noises for communication at the surface, helps it below the water. Belugas, like other toothed whales, use high-pitched sounds to find prey, communicate, and navigate in the opaque waters. The melon focuses their high-pitched echolocation vocalizations like a large squishy lens, allowing them to direct it like a spotlight. It is hard to overstate how important sound is to them.

beluga whales in Hudson's Bay

Cook Inlet beluga whales are near-impossible to see underwater. These belugas swimming in Hudson’s Bay, where the visibility is a little better, show the distinctive bump of their forehead melons. Photo by Paul Souders/Minden Pictures

Cook Inlet hums with anthropogenic noise. Aside from the bustling platforms and ships, the oil and gas industry is responsible for shore-based pipeline terminals and seismic surveys. Rail lines and coastal highways supply Anchorage. Military jets zoom in and out of an air force base on Knik Arm. Fishing boats and cargo ships call at the Port of Anchorage. The city’s airport, Ted Stevens Anchorage International, is one of the largest air terminals in the world by cargo throughput. Anchorage lies partway between the continental United States and East Asia, and is a perfect refueling stop for giant Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s that take off over the water every few minutes. What does this mean for belugas that, without sound, are blind, hungry, and alone?

Manuel Castellote, a research scientist at the University of Washington, studies belugas and their response to sound all over the Arctic. He thinks the most impactful noises in Cook Inlet come from shipping. “There’s a lot of [ship] traffic,” he says. “If you leave the hydrophone recording for a long time you realize, wow, that’s way louder than we expected.”

The average land-based Anchorage-ite might notice roaring plane engines as the most conspicuous ambient noise. But underwater, Castellote says, ship noises are louder and last hours, whereas a plane takes only seconds to pass overhead.

Korean Cargo Jet on approach to Anchorage International Airport

Anchorage may be remote by some standards, but it’s a major air transport hub, and large cargo planes take off and land at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport every few minutes. Photo by Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

The long-term impact on belugas is unclear. Castellote can say for sure that they do react. Sometimes they swim away. Sometimes these vivacious vocalizers become silent in the presence of ships or boats because boat noise, especially that of smaller craft, means “predator” to them: a beluga’s life span is similar to a human’s, so at least some of them were likely alive during the subsistence hunt. “They for sure remember they were hunted from small boats,” Castellote says. “They associate the outboard noise to a boat coming and shooting at them.”

Other times, belugas seem to vocalize louder when there’s boat and ship noise. Castellote calls it the cocktail party effect. They’re likely talking louder to be heard over the din.

Castellote has seen them react to other sound above the waves too, seemingly diving or swimming to get away from highway noise, train whistles, and planes both military and commercial. But the knock-on effects are unclear. If a beluga must pause hunting for every ship, it can still function, but it may be hungry. They risk stranding if they swim in shallow water without echolocating. And there’s a special danger for mothers and calves, which call to each other to stay close. If they have to be quiet while a ship passes, they may get separated in the murk. On its own, a calf will easily starve or strand. Conversely, if belugas always have to “yell” to be heard, there’s an energy cost to that. “Are they going to be feeding less,” Castellote wonders, “is their fitness going to be reduced, are they going to be reproducing less, is this calf going to be able to make it … these are the really hard questions.”

Belugas can survive when it’s loud—but everything becomes a little harder.

Noise compounds with the long list of other challenges facing the Cook Inlet belugas. NOAA’s list of concerns includes infections and disease, lost habitat, depletion of food, and pollution. None of these alone seems to be stalling their recovery, but there’s too little data to be sure. For example, Anchorage sewage is piped into Cook Inlet along with the molecular salad of pharmaceuticals and personal care products the locals flush, wash, or pour down the drain. While turbulent currents and tides move vast amounts of water and likely scour most contaminants out of Cook Inlet, belugas may still be exposed to them. For many of these compounds, scientists have only studied the toxicity of large doses, not the impacts of low-grade chronic exposure.

There’s no evidence of widespread infection, either, but samples only come from post-mortems on a few stranded animals. Scarce salmon may be a factor in some belugas’ health, but most stranded animals haven’t looked emaciated. In the water, at least to the casual observer, the whales seem vital and energetic.

Maybe more data will reveal a smoking gun. But what if there’s another major factor at play not listed in the recovery plan—one that’s nearly impossible to study?

Before he started working with the belugas, Wade co-wrote a paper on how different whale species recover after humans gouged their numbers during the heyday of commercial whaling. It noted a pattern. When depleted baleen whale populations have space and time, most recover. But toothed whales like belugas, narwhals, and killer whales don’t.

Spectators photograph Beluga Whales surfacing in Turnagain Arm

Tourists on the shores of Turnagain Arm catch a glimpse of the Cook Inlet belugas in their natural habitat. Beluga spotting is a popular activity along the arm’s Seward Highway, where regular car pullouts and viewing platforms are set up. Photo by Design Pics Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

There are some clear biological reasons. Toothed whales start reproducing when they’re older and have fewer calves. They eat more fish so they often compete with fisheries for prey. More toxins build up in their bodies because their prey is on average higher up the food chain than the plankton, krill, or small fish consumed by baleen whales.

Toothed whales also form more structured social groups. That gives them many advantages, but it may also be a vulnerability.

We still need more studies on beluga social structure to fill gaps in our understanding. We do know the whales tend to form groups from a few individuals up to thousands. Mothers and calves are at the center of these groups, while males often aggregate separately. Several belugas together can do useful things, like defend against predators and give calves extra care. Meanwhile, young whales likely learn skills from older whales, from basic hunting to how to handle infrequent events like storms or ice entrapment. But what if we break these ties?

Networks were certainly broken in Cook Inlet. “When you think about it, we removed three-quarters of the whales,” Wade says. Worse, the hunt naturally targeted large animals, which overwhelmingly meant the older, wiser leaders. Imagine a human family after 75 percent of its members were wiped out, leaving mostly kids and young adults. They may survive, but they’re unlikely to thrive. There’s some research on how other social animals fare when their elders are removed. Among elephants, killing large trophy males or older females hurts the whole group’s reproduction rate. The same is true with bighorn sheep, wolves, and caribou.

There’s no equivalent study in belugas, but there is a hint that they, too, rely on their elders. Belugas seem to go through menopause, a phenomenon that has long puzzled biologists because it seems counterintuitive for the survival of a species. But menopause creates a class of older animals unburdened by offspring whose primary role is to lead, teach, and help other family members survive. Such guidance must be extremely valuable, the thinking goes, for the species to have evolved this way, with older females living on after reproduction. Scientists call it the grandmother hypothesis.

Wade has been mulling the impacts of social disruption on the belugas for years, but on top of the challenge of following them underwater, can’t imagine how to test those impacts empirically since, to do so, reams of whales would have to be killed or removed from the wild. Instead, he must use what data he can get to build an understanding of their demographics and patterns, and from there get a glimpse of their social dynamics. Wade’s biopsies, combined with McGuire’s photo identification, can build up a who’s who of the Cook Inlet whales, including genetic information that might reveal problems such as inbreeding.

But with all these questions around noise, salmon, and grandmothers, the science is going painfully slow. Biopsies are painstaking to acquire and largely random. Aerial surveys by NOAA show where the whales go and how many there are, but they’re expensive and infrequent, and less useful in the murky water than they would be in other places. Castellote’s hydrophone systems stay in the water for a year, during which time the instruments are easily damaged by ice chunks or tree branches tumbling about the inlet’s floor in the current like waterlogged tumbleweeds.

On top of all the potential problems facing belugas, there may be threats we don’t even know about. Scientists at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game examined isotopes in beluga teeth from specimens dating back to the 1960s. They found the belugas steadily shifted their diet throughout the decades from prey from a marine environment to prey from more brackish or fresh water. That jells with records that the belugas once lived throughout Cook Inlet, but now cluster near the top, close to the freshwater streams. But the timing of this shift is unclear. Was it the hunt? Or some pressure aside from the hunt that squeezed them in, such as construction of oil and gas platforms midway down the inlet? Or is it simply a numbers game: with fewer animals post-hunt, they can all congregate near the streams’ rich buffet? And no one knows how to assess potential impacts of a massive earthquake that struck Alaska in 1964. There are endless questions.

The belugas may not survive the wait for answers. Some scientists think we can pave the way for future conservation measures now.

Verena Gill stands on Point Woronzof, a small coastal park just west of Anchorage, her slight frame sheathed in a blue windbreaker. It’s another bright fall day and the warm sun sets the yellow leaves of the young poplar trees ablaze, but Gill is squinting across Cook Inlet with concern. On the far shore sits the village of Tyonek and right now opaque white fog is rolling up the inlet and erasing the shore from sight.

Verena Gill of NOAA Fisheries at Belugas Count!

Verena Gill of NOAA Fisheries coordinates Belugas Count!, an annual public beluga-spotting event that raises awareness about the endangered Cook Inlet belugas. Photo by Michael Dinneen

Point Woronzof is one of 14 public viewing stations set up around Cook Inlet today for Belugas Count!, an annual event that is Gill’s brainchild. There are stations from Anchorage up Turnagain and Knik Arms, and as far south as Homer, a 360-kilometer drive south to where the inlet meets the Pacific. People come to spot belugas and learn more about them, and while the count numbers aren’t used for research—yet—they are being collected in a database. The Woronzof lookout happens to sit just beneath the main approach to the airport. A binder with laminated info sheets flutters in the wind on a folding table. Six or seven volunteers in high-visibility jackets (“Ask me why Belugas Count!”) pass out binoculars and supervise two telescopes trained over the waves. One volunteer jokes she feels like a crossing guard.

Gill welcomes everyone with enthusiasm, but keeps glancing across the inlet. Then her phone chimes with news. She murmurs aloud as she reads a message from a volunteer currently on a small plane to Tyonek: “‘heavy clouds over Tyonek,’ ‘unlikely I can land.’ Oh, no!” The village’s school was set to become a new viewing station this year, with students getting credit for taking part. The volunteer was carrying over materials to help the school run the event. Now, the inlet’s capricious conditions have turned her back. The principal will have to run the site alone so the kids can still get credit.

Kids are the reason Belugas Count! came to be. Coming to this role, Gill already had some experience with conservation work. She spent years as a field biologist working mainly with sea otters, whose return to the west coast of North America, Gill says, caused joy for environmentalists but also some ire among fishermen who blamed the otters for reducing their catch by eating all the fish. (“It’s nice to work with belugas,” Gill says. “No one seems to hate them.”) But her focus shifted when she had kids.

Volunteers set up for Belugas Count!

Volunteers set up for Belugas Count! at Point Woronzof, a small park on the shore of Cook Inlet near Anchorage. It was one of 14 public viewing stations during the event. Photo by Michael Dinneen

She realized she wanted to reach people beyond academia and create a “wave of energy” in the public about the species she worked with. So in 2016 Gill became a recovery coordinator for NOAA Fisheries focusing first on right whales, and then more recently on belugas as well. When she took the role, NOAA had just released the recovery plan for the belugas. Gill saw that public outreach was listed as a priority, but there were no concrete ideas. Gill proposed to her NOAA colleagues a “watch” day modeled after the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. Thanks to the opaque water and low numbers, beluga spotting here takes time and patience, so many people around Anchorage rarely see the belugas in their own backyard. But for once, the belugas’ home smack dab in the middle of a population center could work to their advantage. If, Gill thought, she could set up places where residents could make a morning of it, had a good chance of spotting them, and maybe got a smattering of conservation science on the side—well, maybe Anchorage’s 300,000 people would feel more invested in them. She held the first Belugas Count! in 2017. Twelve viewing stations counted 255 belugas.

Around the Woronzof lookout, kids point with excitement at the waves. A young rep from Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium does a Facebook Live session from her phone. Noah Meisenheimer, a NOAA fish and wildlife officer, swings by to chat with Gill. Meisenheimer was instrumental in saving a stranded beluga calf last year, a male dubbed Tyonek, that was too young to be returned to the wild and now lives at the SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas. (“Apparently he’s 225 pounds [102 kilograms] and is best friends with a Pacific white-sided dolphin,” Gill says. And he continues to grow.) Bill Sherwonit, nature writer and self-proclaimed “greenie,” peers through a telescope. He says the public cares about the belugas, as evidenced by the many pullouts and viewpoints on the highway along Turnagain Arm, which are often full of cars. “Get a pod of beluga whales moving along the Seward Highway,” he says, “and you just get these car jams.”

So far, the belugas are a no-show. But Gill’s phone dings with updates from the other stations. She thumbs between text chains. “Oh! Bird Point has belugas now!” she calls. Encouraged, the folks at Woronzof keep scanning.

Bill Sherwonit

Volunteer Bill Sherwonit sets up a spotting scope at Point Woronzof. Photo by Michael Dinneen

If scientists can figure out what’s clotheslining the belugas, the resultant regulations will succeed or fail depending on the goodwill of people like Sherwonit and Meisenheimer and the others who live along the inlet. Suppose, Gill says, as a hypothetical situation (she stresses hypothetical), a lack of salmon emerges as the culprit. The government would then slash fishing quotas. But many guides and communities around the inlet make their living from recreational fishing trips. “People would be angry about that,” Gill says, “unless there’s this groundswell of support for the belugas, and people understand …” She begins to raise her voice as another sound builds, all but drowning her out. Finally, she pauses as a Boeing 747 bursts from behind the trees and roars off over the inlet on its four deafening engines. Gill waits for it to pass and continues, “… they realize how important belugas are to the entire health of the ecosystem.”

The belugas continue their relentless noises unabated as the afternoon at the beluga pool wears on. But Wade will wait a little longer before he takes the rigid inflatable back to port. He can’t dock the boat until a few hours after low tide, which today will happen at 6:20 p.m. That, and the calm sunny weather makes for prime photographic opportunities.

With glassy seas, Denali hazy on the horizon, and whales frolicking about, our chitchat turns paradoxically to how dangerous the inlet can be for humans, as well as for whales. Researchers heading out on the water have to be aware of the risks, or, as McGuire puts it, “The cascade of what could go wrong.” Wade recalls racing to shore when strong winds suddenly swept down Turnagain Arm, churning up two- and three-meter waves in just 30 minutes. McGuire says when a boat strands on flats, water running around the sides can carve deep runnels that can make it topple onto its side and spill its occupants into the frigid sucking mud.

Cook Inlet is beautiful, but it’s hard. Watching the belugas—the goofy, cartoonish, fart-noise-making belugas—it seems impossibly hard for them, too.

Then, for no obvious reason, the belugas’ movements change. The shift is subtle. It takes a second to realize what’s happening.

The belugas are leaving the pool. Five or six big white forms lead the retreat out into the inlet. They are the elders, those who survived the hunt or came of age since, who will guide their families back up with the flood tide into the arms and through the tricky shallows to food. Wade checks the time, though he doesn’t really need to. It is 6:23. The belugas have sensed the turning tide almost to the minute.

To the human eye, when wild creatures operate so expertly in their environment it seems uncanny. But these belugas are simply doing what they are born to do: surviving in this inlet, as they have for thousands of years. To save them, we need to figure out what’s haunting them now, hidden in the inscrutable water.

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Cite this Article: Amorina Kingdon “The Baffling Case of the Belugas that Won’t Bounce Back,” Hakai Magazine, May 21, 2019, accessed May 27th, 2024, https://hakaimagazine.com/features/the-baffling-case-of-the-belugas-that-wont-bounce-back/.

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