Oral History Details Whale Sightings

A new exhibit dedicated to Cook Inlet Beluga whales opens Friday June 8 at the Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward. To highlight the exhibit, an oral history of the white whales, commissioned by the Kenai Peninsuala Borough, is now available.

As KSKA’s Ellen Lockyer reports, authors of the history gathered anecdotal reports of sightings dating from the mid twentieth century to the present, and one thing is clear from the compilation….. there’s not many belugas swimming in Cook Inlet these days.

According to the report, released last month, not much is known about the habitat or the habits of the Cook Inlet beluga whale. The Cook Inlet whales are distinct from other belugas in the state.  Janet Klein is a Homer historian and archeologist who worked on gathering whale sighting stories. She says her long time residence in Homer helped her find people to talk to about their sightings

“My family, when the whales were in town, somebody would call us and we’d go down to the base of the Homer Spit and watch the whales, and everybody would call everybody, and there would be these long lines to see the belugas and long lines of cars parked here on the Homer Spit with people getting out to watch the whales in Mud Bay or swimming along the spit. I got to know a lot of those people of course.”

Despite the report’s klunky title, An Oral History of the Habits of the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale, the accounts within it of huge pods of belugas swimming, whistling and apparrantly teasing land lubbers on shore are fascinating.

“That was a lot of what people wanted to share. A Homer man would go out in his rowboat here in high tide at Mud Bay and row among the belugas out there”….

…“One time in 1977…… I went to the north end of Kalgin Island in my wood boat. I was trying to anticipate the salmon run. I spotted a pod of beluga coming down the inlet, southwest to south, and so I shut my engine down and drifted with them just for the experience of it. They were rolling and passed me, paying me no notice. They were swimming with purpose. There had to have been 100s of them: probably 100 – 200 belugas, as far as I could see from the bottom of my wooden boat. All you could hear was their breathing. I never saw that again.”

More than 200 people were interviewed for the oral history, which covers Kenai Peninsula Borough waters only.

Accounts from the 1940’s through the 1980’s detail beluga sightings from Homer spit to Anchorage of hundreds of whales. Whales communicating with each other in a strange canary like whistle and making a whoosh sound as they exhale through their blowholes.

Belugas were so plentiful in Cook Inlet that Kenai’s Beluga Days fair featured beluga burgers along with ice cream and cotton candy.

But sometime after 1990, things changed. Sightings dropped off dramatically, as if the Cook Inlet belugas had all but vanished.

Again, Janet Klein

“We haven’t seen them in any big numbers since the early 1990’s down here. And when they are sightings they are quite unusual.”

There is a lot of finger pointing as to who, or what is to blame. And there is a lot of blame to go around, according to those interviewed.

Some blame the Exxon Valdez oil spill, some blame natural causes, like changes in the Inlet floor stemming from the 1964 earthquake. Others blame human interference, both oil development, and overhunting by subsistence hunters.

Klein says the purpose of the oral report is not to determine the why of the Cook Inlet beluga decline, although the accounts help pinpoint some landmarks.

“In 2006, Carl Stoltzfus with Bay Excursions here saw a beluga, a single beluga, with a pod of harbor porpoise swimming off glacier spit. And that is the last confirmed sighting of a beluga in Katchemak bay that I was able to track down. “

Unfortunately, photographic evidence of belugas is scarce. It was mostly fishermen who spotted the whales in great numbers.

“I would ask them, ‘Oh, did you take any pictures?’ And almost without exception they would say ‘ Janet, we weren’t out there to take pictures, we were out there to fish.'”

And, Klein wonders, what reports of sightings lie yet uncovered in musty historical records.

“Did Captain Cook see any belugas when he came up? Did Vancouver? Did Mears, did any of these early explorers. Where do belugas show up in prehistory there ? I’ve been doing archaeological digs down here for many years and beluga bones are quite common. So we know belugas were in Katchemak bay, and the Native people were hunting them and utilizing them. “

She says we only know a fraction of the belugas’ history.

The information in the report goes to the National Marine Fisheries Service to help with a beluga recovery plan, which has been mandated under the Endangered Species Act. Cook Inlet Beluga Whales were listed as endangered in 2008. Knowing more about the range of beluga movement helps to draw boundaries around the whales’ habitat.


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APTI Reporter-Producer Ellen Lockyer started her radio career in the late 1980s, after a stint at bush Alaska weekly newspapers, the Copper Valley Views and the Cordova Times. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Valdez Public Radio station KCHU needed a reporter, and Ellen picked up the microphone. Since then, she has literally traveled the length of the state, from Attu to Eagle and from Barrow to Juneau, covering Alaska stories on the ground for the AK show, Alaska News Nightly, the Alaska Morning News and for Anchorage public radio station, KSKA elockyer (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8446 | About Ellen