In an unusual event, a pair of beluga whales swam about 60 miles up the Kuskokwim River to Bethel. After word spread, boaters chased the belugas and caught at least one. Now an official is working to collect samples from the animal to better understand where it came from.
Anne Kosacheff lives along the Kuskokwim River in Bethel. She recounts how on May 26, around 6 p.m., she and a friend were sitting outside when they saw something white in the river below.
“At first I thought they were swans, because what else is bright white and big across the river?” Kosacheff said.
But no, she realized, they weren’t birds, but they were too far away to see. Kosacheff went inside for a bit, then came out shortly after.
“And there was this beluga whale literally spinning at my feet. I mean, 30 feet, but at my feet,” Kosacheff said. “And I was dumbfounded.”
She ran for her camera, then ran down the hill to the seawall to get closer.
“He came in the air literally 10 feet in front of me. There were two,” Kosacheff said.
More people started gathering to watch the whales.
“They swam past Bethel for maybe 30 minutes, and a lot of us were ohhh and ahhh and taking pictures. And that was just an amazing thing,” Kosacheff said.
Jennifer Hooper also lives along the Kuskokwim River in Bethel. Her friend told her about the beluga and she headed to the dike to observe them.
“After about a good half hour, maybe even an hour, it was obvious that some boats were leaving and actively going to pick them up and chase them,” Hooper said.
At least six boats have started hunting whales. Hooper watched them take at least one of the belugas near the island across the edge of the Bethel River.
Alaska Natives can legally take beluga whales under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Hooper works as a director of natural resources for the regional non-profit tribal association, the Association of Village Council Chairpersons (AVCP). The AVCP is part of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee, which co-manages beluga whale stocks in western and northern Alaska. The committee encourages hunters and scientists to work together to collect samples of captured belugas to better understand and manage them.
Hooper tries to track down the hunters so she can collect these samples. There is not much data on where the beluga whales that swim along the coast of the region migrate from.
“We’re trying to get more samples from whales harvested in our area to know more succinctly whether they’re north-migrating or south-migrating whales,” Hooper said.
This work includes collecting a skin sample to gather genetic data, retrieving bone from his lower jaw to examine his teeth for signs of aging, and observing health indicators like content out of his stomach to see what he was eating.
Hooper noted that the search for food could be the reason the beluga swam about 60 miles up the river to Bethel. The first king salmon have started moving up the river, and more are expected to follow.