Making a Difference for Belugas | Glacier City Gazette
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Making a Difference for Belugas

Making a Difference for Belugas

By Morgan Smith
Staff Writer

We all have to do it for some reason or another. Whether to grab groceries or use the Seward Highway for travel, we venture out onto the Turnagain Arm with its ever changing scenery. With all of the spectacular sights along the way, we sometimes forget how truly special this area is.

I saw a pod of beluga whales on the Turnagain Arm the other day and pulled over to soak in their majesty. When they surface, it seems so short lived that you don’t even want to blink. This got me thinking, how much do we really know about Beluga’s and their environment?

I sat down with Suzanne Steinert, Founder and President of the Beluga Whale Alliance to get informed. Erin Leighton, Board Member of the Beluga Whale Alliance, accompanied Suzanne and I was thankful for their guidance. I quickly learned how unaware of the critical problem the Cook Inlet belugas faced.

One of Five populations of Belugas in Alaska, the Cook Inlet belugas numbers are so low (around 328) that they are on the critically endangered list. The problem is so severe that NOAA Fisheries (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Association) created a Species in the Spotlight program to highlight eight different critically endangered species that need our attention immediately to help improve their numbers or their populations will could continue to dwindle. The Cook Inlet beluga is on that list.

Steinert decided she needed to do even more herself. Compelled by her passion for belugas, she started up the Citizen Science and Interpretation Project. This passion project starts Aug. 13th from 6-7:30 p.m. at Girdwood Community Center. Here you will find out more about Belugas and how you can help.

Steinert will also go over how to properly collect monitoring data and what your will need during survey monitoring if you choose to volunteer. Steinert is looking for six volunteers to survey monitor, for two hours at high tide, at three designated Beluga monitoring locations (Twentymile River, Bird Point, and Ship Creek).

Here volunteers will survey monitor the Belugas and fill out their monitoring data sheets to help enhance Beluga recovery and protection. Also volunteers will be equipped with knowledge to share with tourist and other locals about belugas to continue to spread awareness to this worthy cause. The sign up sheet will be located on the Beluga Whale Alliance website, www.belugawhalealliance.org. If you have any volunteering questions get in touch at volunteer@belugawhalealliance.org.

Also, if you don’t have time to volunteer, but you’d like to help, you can share your beluga sightings. Text “BELUGAS” to 33-222 to sign up for beluga alerts and share your own sightings. All local reports received by the Beluga Whale Alliance team are actively shared with NOAA Fisheries and can be directly logged online at www.cookinletbelugas.com. Donations are also a great way to help out. You can donate at paypal.me/belugawhalealliance. If you have any other questions, you can reach Suzanne at suzanne@belugawhalealliance.org or (907) 201-7329.

The Beluga Whale Alliance doesn’t just stop there. Earlier this summer in partnership with Four Valleys Community School, children grades 4-8 got to attend a summer camp called Tides and Ecology. Hosted by Leighton, these campers rode their bikes out to Bird Point to meet with Steinert to discuss Cook Inlet belugas and how they need our help. Campers learned about a variety of current and future threats from increasing human activities, including noise, boat traffic, pollution, oil and gas exploration, fisheries and climate change. They were taught what to do in case of a stranded beluga and how to get the beluga help by contacting NOAA Fisheries 24-hour stranding hotline at (877) 925-7773.

The ability to survey from the shore instead of requiring a boat made it so kids could post up on shore and try their luck at spotting a pod of whales. It was exciting and interactive. “It was my favorite summer camp!” Luca Ragozzino explains as he describes the days activties to me. Beluga facts start to pour from his mouth and his excitement was obvious.

Steinert and Leighton truly impacted the campers to encourage them for continued conservation of belugas with a passion for these animals. The kids even got to fill out survey monitoring data sheets, so now they are ready for a crack at volunteering themselves. Steinert encourages people of all ages to join the effort. Together we can make a difference.

Courtesy photo / Four Valleys Community School
BWA Founder & President Suzanne Steinert showing camp attendees how to report stranded belugas at Bird Point during a Tides & Ecology summer adventure camp, hosted by Four Valleys Community School and sponsored by KMTA on July 17th, 2019.

Courtesy photo / Anthony Madden/BWA
This adult Cook Inlet beluga and calf were photographed in the Turnagain Arm by Anchorage-based professional photographer Anthony Madden in Fall 2018. Note the markings on the white adult: BWA shares images like these with the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Photo-ID Project, which examines the markings to identify individual belugas.

Courtesy photo Heather Thamm/BWA
A juvenile Cook Inlet beluga swims downstream amidst ice floes in the Twentymile River in April 2018.