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Public Cook Inlet beluga whale counting event returns Saturday

A Cook Inlet beluga whale swimming with a calf.
Chris Garner
Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson
A Cook Inlet beluga whale swimming with a calf.

After a two-year break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Saturday, Sept. 17, marks the return of Belugas Count!, a public science event that aims to catalog Cook Inlet’s beluga whale population.

The event is hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and will take place across 14 public viewing stations in communities from Anchorage down to the lower Kenai Peninsula.

Belugas Count! is an all-day event where community members are encouraged to watch for belugas in the water, help count them and hopefully photograph them.

“There’s not really anywhere else in the U.S. where you can drive on the road system in a city and go see beluga whales like this, or an endangered whale at all,” said Jill Seymore, the Cook Inlet Beluga Recovery Coordinator for NOAA Fisheries.

She said getting the public involved is an important part of keeping track of the Cook Inlet beluga population.

“There are many more members of the public than there are beluga scientists out on shore at any given time,” she said.

Cook Inlet beluga whales have been listed as endangered since 2008 and scientists estimate there are fewer than 300 belugas left. Their population has declined nearly 80% since 1979.

Researchers are looking into several reasons for their continued decline, including human activity and noise and climate change, but they haven’t reached any conclusions.

NOAA Fisheries designates Cook Inlet beluga whales as one of their “Species in the Spotlight,” meaning that they’re in need of a concerted conservation effort from organizations in order to survive. Seymore said the event this weekend is one such effort.

“One of the biggest challenges we have with this population is that we don’t have a definitive reason why they are continuing to decline despite a lot of conservation effort and research that’s been done,” she said. “So making the public aware of ways that they can be engaged and generally aware that there’s this really unique population of endangered whales is just one of the main reasons why we host this event.”

There will be educational activities at each of the viewing stations. The event usually draws about 2,000 people.

There are three beluga viewing locations on the Kenai Peninsula — one in Homer at the Baycrest Overlook, one off of the Hope Highway, and one in Kenai, at the Scenic Bluff Overlook, next to the Kenai Senior Center. There are also several locations off of Turnagain Arm. NOAA asks that individuals bring their own binoculars.

Seymour said the Homer viewing station isn’t the most common area to view beluga whales, because unlike the other Cook Inlet locations, belugas are less likely to be visible at high tide. Scientists aren’t precisely sure why that is, although they suspect it may have to do with the convergence zone at that location. 

“But that’s an excellent location too, if you aren’t looking to travel as far as Kenai, but you’re wanting to connect with and learn more about Cook Inlet belugas," she said. "I will say, chances are less likely to see the whales there themselves, but you never know, they could show up.”

The Homer viewing station is located at milepost 169.5 on the Sterling Highway, and is open from noon til 2 p.m. Saturday.

Riley Board is a Report For America corps member covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula for KDLL. A recent graduate of Middlebury College, where she studied linguistics, English literature and German, Board was editor-in-chief of The Middlebury Campus, the student newspaper, and completed work as a Kellogg Fellow, doing independent linguistics research. She has interned at the Burlington Free Press, covering the early days of the pandemic’s effects on Vermont communities, and at Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife, where she wrote about culture and folklife in Washington, D.C. and beyond. Board hails from Sarasota, Florida.
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