Belugas Count! returned to Cook Inlet this weekend, drawing eyes to the water in search of the endangered local population of beluga whales.
At a viewing station on Kenai’s bluff overlook by the Kenai Senior Center, dozens gathered and peered out over the Kenai River during a morning session from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. By around noon, beluga whales hadn’t yet passed by, but people staffing the station kept the energy up, chatting with visitors about the whales at the center of the celebration, passing out stickers, and keeping eyes locked on the water in hopes that a glimpse would yet come.
Those volunteers came from hosting organizations Alaska Wildlife Alliance and Kenai Peninsula College, as well as visiting Georgia and Shedd Aquariums.
According to NOAA, there are five populations of beluga whales in Alaska. The Cook Inlet population is the smallest, and the only one to be registered as endangered. Cook Inlet belugas were identified as endangered in 2008 and have been designated by the agency as a “Species in the Spotlight” since 2015.
A second viewing session was hosted in Kenai later that night. Before that, a beluga festival was held at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. In celebration of 50 years since the passing of the Endangered Species Act, booths were set up by local organizations like the Kenai Watershed Forum to discuss wider topics related to wildlife conservation.
Part of the festival included a video conference call with SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas. That’s where Tyonek, a Cook Inlet beluga, has lived since being rescued in 2017. Dozens filled the chamber’s main meeting area and viewed a projector — SeaWorld staff answering questions from the side of the pool, Tyonek visible in the background.
Nicole Schmitt, executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, pointed attendees toward the alliance’s beluga sighting text alerts. They send notifications when belugas are spotted on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers — including where they were sighted and how many. In recent weeks, beluga sighting notifications have come almost daily. To sign up, text “BELUGA” to 833-541-0808.
For more information about Belugas Count!, visit facebook.com/BelugasCount.
Reach reporter Jake Dye at firstname.lastname@example.org.