Sea Grant Fellow leading Kenai River beluga whale 'citizen science' study

May 3, 2018

Beluga whale.
Credit Kenai Marine Mammal Monitoring Project

  Beluga whale watching used to be a popular attraction around Kenai, but for the past 20-some years sightings have become increasingly rare. And, for most of the year, the small white whales are few and far between in this part of Cook Inlet. It's no wonder they are being intensively studied.

One effort, the Kenai Marine Mammal Monitoring Project, is a community-based citizen-science program, overseen by Kim Ovitz, a fellow with the University of Alaska Sea Grant Program.

"There have been a number of different community-based monitoring efforts in the Inlet over the past few decades. And one of those was with the Friends of the Anchorage wildlife refuge. I'm not sure if they're monitoring currently, but they have in the past. And there is currently a monitoring effort that is community effort taking place in the 20-Mile River area of Turnagain Arm looking at the tri-rivers area, so looking at the Portage and Placer rivers as well. And that's being facilitated by a graduate student and Girdwood local in that area. So, they're looking there, we're looking down here in Kenai. Every September we have a big outreach event, also where the community can come together and look for beluga in the Inlet," Ovitz said. "So all these efforts together are giving us a better idea of how belugas are distributed, or what areas of the inlet they're using at different times of year."

Ovitz said there are plenty of ways folks can participate, from submitting sighting reports online of beluga or other marine mammals, to sitting down for an interview.

"You know I'm happy always to sit down where we can have a more formal interview and we can maybe record and sit down and do more of an oral history style kind of conversation. Otherwise we can have sort of a quick conversation where someone can call me on the phone and I can write down a few notes about what they've been seeing. They can send me an e-mail: kenaimmmp@gmail.com. You can call me, or catch me on the streets and tell me what you've been seeing, so there's a bunch of different ways," she said. "I'll also have an online form that'll be available in the next week or so which I can share with you and the Peninsula Clarion to see if anyone just wants to write down a quick form submission on what they've been seeing and what their perspective is on phenomenon in the area."

In fact, talking to folks about Cook Inlet beluga whales is part of Ovitz' mission.

"A huge part of the goal of this research is to just connecting with people in the area. Typically I'm interviewing fishermen, so I'm on the opposite side of the microphone as I am today, where I'm asking people what they've been seeing and how that's been changing what their perspectives are on the types of conversations that we're having or the types of phenomena we're discussing. So when I'm down at the monitoring site monitoring for whales and I see someone and they want to talk about how the fish stocks are doing or how they think this area is going, and what it used to be like, or what it's like now," Ovitz said. "Those are the kind of things I really love to learn about and document. And it just really enhances our understanding of this ecosystem here in Kenai and how it's functioning."

Ovitz made her comments on KDLL's Kenai Conversation Wednesday. One caller, Matt Pyhala, said he regularly kayaks with the white whales in the Kenai River.

"This time of year for the last several years, every time I kayak on an evening flood tide, we end up paddling with the whales," Pyhala said.

"Very cool. That must be an incredible experience," replied Ovitz.

"Yeah, it's been fun. It's been a good time," Pyhala said "I've been able to bring some brand new paddlers out, like their first time kayaking, and boom, right there, they get to paddle with some whales."

Pyhala said he had seen the whales as far upriver as Cunningham Park, which is where interested citizen scientists can meet Ovitz at Thursday from 4 to 8 p.m. to do some group whale-watching. Bring binoculars and some raingear, as the forecast is calling for rain.