A citizen-science project this spring to document Cook Inlet beluga whales in the Kenai River was wildly successful.
Until it wasn’t.
The spotting project ran from March 15 through May 31 with scores of citizens taking part in planned, or sometimes impromptu, whale-spotting adventures. And though the study period was two and a half months, the sightings made in the river all came during just a portion of that time period, according to the woman who had her eyes on the river every day.
“Over that whole time period we only actually observed beluga activity from about March 23rd through April 30th, more or less," said Kim Ovitz, the Alaska Sea Grant Fellow. "And that was pretty consistent almost every day, and that was pretty exciting to see.”
She said there were approximately 367 documented sightings, but many of those whales were repeat visitors.
“So that’s not individual beluga whales, since we’re not tracking individual identity. But it does show there was a lot of activity in the Kenai River over our monitoring period, so that was pretty neat to see," she said. "Our largest group size to date was about 27 whales, so we were seeing pretty big groups come up.”
And though Ovitz said she collected historical reports of belugas traveling as far up river as the Soldotna River Bridge, this year’s pods made it not nearly half way there.
“I think the furthest up we documented them was around nine miles upriver, so just past Cunningham Park a ways," she said. "So we did see that sustained activity, mixed age classes, we’re seeing both calves and adults, so that was pretty neat.”
Ovitz says the monitoring program she’s led is wrapped up now, but there’s still an opportunity for the citizen science to go on.
“So that’s really our best asset on the Kenai is people on shore or in their homes, have a view of the river, and who are willing to, when they see whales, call in or report in, and they can do that at Cook Inlet Belugas dot com," she said. "It’s a great way to share their sightings and be a part of the research and really contribute to beluga monitoring and conservation. So we’re not going to have a dedicated science effort going on, but we are definitely collecting public sighting. That’s a huge help to us.”
The population of the Cook Inlet beluga is closely monitored after an historic crash in the past 25 years that has seen about three-quarters of the inlet’s population die, leaving about 300 left alive.