Beluga whales swam up the Kuskokwim River to Bethel and scientists want samples of them

two people look out on the water
Onlookers gather to watch a beluga whale swimming in the Kuskokwim River near Bethel, Alaska on May 26, 2022. (Anne Kosacheff)

In an unusual event, a pair of beluga whales swam about 60 miles up the Kuskokwim River to Bethel. After word got out, boaters pursued the belugas and took at least one of them. Now, an official is working to collect samples of the animal to better understand where it came from.

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Anne Kosacheff lives along the Kuskokwim River in Bethel. Last Thursday, around 6 p.m., she and a friend were sitting outside when they saw something white in the river below.

“Initially I thought they were swan, because what else is bright white and big across the river?,” Kosacheff said.

But no, she realized, they weren’t birds. Still, they were too far away to see. Kosacheff went inside for a bit, and then shortly after stepped back out.

“And there was this beluga whale turning around literally at my feet. I mean, 30 feet away, but at my feet,” Kosacheff said. “And I was stunned.”

She ran to get her camera, and then ran down the hill to the seawall to get closer.

“It came up for air literally 10 feet in front of me. There were two of them,” Kosacheff said.

More people began gathering to watch the whales.

“They swam around in front of Bethel maybe 30 minutes, and there was a crowd of us just oohing and ahhing and taking pictures. And it was really quite an amazing thing,” Kosacheff said.

Jennifer Hooper also lives along the Kuskokwim River in Bethel. Her friend told her about the beluga, and she walked to the seawall to watch them.

“After a good half hour or so, maybe even an hour, it was obvious that some boats were heading out and were actively going to be looking for them and pursuing them,” Hooper said.

At least six boats began hunting the whales. Hooper watched them take at least one of the belugas near the island across from the Bethel riverfront.

Alaska Natives can legally take beluga whales under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Hooper works as the Natural Resource Director for the regional Tribal nonprofit, the Association of Village Council Presidents. The association is part of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, which co-manages beluga stocks in Western and Northern Alaska. The committee encourages hunters and scientists to work together to collect samples of harvested beluga to better understand and manage them.

Hooper is trying to track down the hunters so she can collect samples. There’s not much data on where the beluga are migrating from that swim along the region’s coast.

“We’re trying to get more samples from whales that are harvested from our region to know more succinctly whether they’re whales that are migrating north or back south,” Hooper said.

This work includes collecting a skin sample to gather genetic data, salvaging its lower jaw bone to look at its teeth for signs of aging, and observing health indicators like its stomach contents to see what it was eating.

Hooper noted that pursuing food could be the reason why the beluga swam about 60 miles up the river to Bethel. The first king salmon have begun running up the river, and more are expected to follow.

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Anna Rose MacArthur is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

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