Fishermen aren’t the only ones hunting salmon in Bristol Bay. Last week, people spotted mysterious shapes in the freshwater lake about 20 miles inland from Dillingham.
Sherol Mershon runs the Silver Fin Bed and Breakfast, on the shore of Lake Aleknagik. She’s hung fishing nets for 45 years and has seen her fair share of wildlife. So when her guests told her they saw whales in the lake, she had her doubts.
But the next day, she decided to take a closer look.
“Oh my! There are beluga. I said, ‘You guys come down — come down and look.’ And sure enough, I bet we saw seven. And they were traveling, but traveling slow,” she said.
About a hundred feet beyond the buoys off the boat launch, she saw pale shapes swimming through the water.
“There were two big white shadows in the water. Two big beluga there. One of the people here saw the baby kind of by the mama, they were gray,” she said.
Belugas have been sighted in Lake Aleknagik before, but Mershon said this is the first time she’s ever seen a beluga there.
“Some were kind of heading over to Yako Creek,” she said. “It was fun. This was the best I’ve ever seen them. The only time I’ve ever seen them. The only time is these last couple days.”
Lori Quakenbush, a marine mammal biologist with Fish and Game, happened to be staying at Mershon’s bed and breakfast.
“Belugas have no problem at all going up rivers into fresh water and can stay in fresh water for long periods of time. They’ll follow fish up rivers,” she said.
Quakenbush said belugas probably venture into fresh water more often than people realize.
This spring, a pair of belugas swam up the Kuskokwim River to Bethel — a journey of about 60 miles.
“They’re very shallow water cetaceans, or small whales, so they can handle the shallow waters of the rivers to get into places like lakes,” she said.
The whale sightings in Lake Aleknagik were serendipitous for Quakenbush, who is surveying Bristol Bay’s belugas this month.
“We’re here to do aerial surveys to count belugas in Bristol Bay, which we last did in 2016,” she said. “So we’re trying to do a count of the entire bay in order to see if we can tell if the population is declining, stable or increasing.”
In 2016, there were around 2,000 belugas in Bristol Bay, Quakenbush said. Fish and Game biologists are conducting aerial surveys between Dillingham and King Salmon and don’t have the final counts for this year. But she said so far, it doesn’t look like much has changed.
The west side of Bristol Bay, including the Wood River, has seen one of the largest sockeye runs on record this summer. More than 3 million sockeye salmon have swum up the Wood, which flows from Lake Aleknagik out into Nushagak Bay. And while belugas do eat a lot of salmon when they’re available, there’s a limit to how much fish one whale can hold.
“A large red salmon run like you’re having here in Bristol Bay now is good for belugas, but they can only fill their stomachs so many times a day,” she said. “If the run lasted longer from beginning to end that might be a better year for belugas than if there’s more fish coming in at the normal time — they can’t really take advantage of that.”
Mershon, the bed and breakfast owner, said it was great to learn how to spot belugas in the lake.
“In the olden days I’ve heard people say they’ve seen them here, but since I ran my own boat for 15 years and went set netting for 20, I was gone a lot,” she said. “It’s been really fun. I’m really glad they came and helped me train my eyes to what the belugas look like.”