August 30, 2003
NOAA Fisheries officials conducted an aerial survey at mid-day Friday to try and detect if any whales were injured or killed in the temporary stranding. Aerial surveys will continue into the Labor Day weekend.
"Our beluga whale expert, Barb Mahoney, watched the whales actively swim free between 7:30 and 8:00 Thursday evening," said Ron Berg, Deputy Administrator of the Alaska Region of NOAA Fisheries. "News so far on this stranding is positive. "
"Coho salmon are returning to the Portage, Placer and 20-Mile Rivers at the head of Turnagain Arm. That, plus the fact that we had one of the lowest tides this month, may have led the whales into trouble, " he added.
Alaska State Troopers reported the stranded whales Thursday afternoon. Troopers, three NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement officers, plus three people from NOAA Fisheries Protected Resources Division responded to the stranding report.
The closest whales were stranded about a half mile seaward from the edge of a grassy intertidal area. Others were scattered over about a mile of the Turnagain Arm tidal flats. Turnagain Arm is about four miles wide at the stranding site, which is exposed mudflats during minus tides. Girdwood, about 40 miles southeast from Anchorage, is the town nearest the stranding site.
The whales were distantly visible from the road, but were not approachable on foot because of water in the channel.
"Luckily the weather was cool and overcast [Thursday], and we even had some drizzle," said NOAA Fisheries' Belugas Whale Program Coordinator Barbara Mahoney. "Conditions for survival were great."
Mahoney watched the stranded whales late into the evening Thursday as the tide rose and saw them begin to actively swim as the returning tide reached them. Adult beluga whales need four to five feet of water to swim freely.
Two dead beluga whales reportedly washed ashore Friday of the group of 46 beluga whales stranded Thursday.
Beluga whales generally survive temporary strandings better than the great whales, whose breathing and internal organs can be compromised by their enormous weight. When beluga whales actively swim in the returning tide, it is an indicator that they are not injured.
An adult male beluga whale averages 13 feet long and weighs 3,300 pounds. Females are smaller.
Cook Inlet beluga whales are depleted under the Marine Mammal
Protect Act. They are a small, isolated stock of whales that
is geographically and genetically separate from the other four
stocks of belugas found in Bristol Bay, the Eastern Bering Sea,
the Eastern Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea.
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