By Dan Ritzman, Arctic Wild guide and Alaska Program Director for the Sierra Club .
Beluga whales are an emblem of the arctic seas. Big males can reach 16 feet in length and nearly 4,000 pounds. The are supremely ice adapted regularly feed and travel in seas which are 90% covered in sea ice. Belugas are circumpolar in the northern hemisphere where they live in groups from 2 to several thousand individuals. During the summer they primarily feed at the edge of the continental shelf where upwelling presumably create a rich marine environment where arctic cod are abundant. Though many individuals from the Beaufort Sea feed in shallow waters near the Alaska/ Canadian border we rarely see them on our trips that go to the arctic coast.
Though off-shore drilling in the Beaufort Sea and proposed gas and oil projects in the Chukchi Sea could have delitory effects on Beluga populations, this edition of my conservation blog doesn’t focus on the Arctic but takes a look at Cook Inlet, and the local population of endangered Beluga Whales that ply these waters. Cook Inlet stretches 180 miles (290 km) from the Gulf of Alaska to Anchorage in south-central Alaska. Cook Inlet branches into the Knik Arm and Turnagain Arm at its northern end, almost surrounding Anchorage.
Like the legendary Moby Dick, the full-grown beluga whale is snowy white. Yet unlike Herman Melville’s mostly fictitious albino sperm whale, which had only Captain Ahab to deal with, the beluga swims in an ocean chock-full of dangers such as pollution, oil drilling, and global warming. The isolated Cook Inlet beluga whale population must also contend with the increasingly perilous and industrialized waters near Anchorage, Alaska’s fastest-growing city.
Recently the Obama Administration proposed designating over 3,000 square mile of Cook Inlet as critical habitat for the Beluga. These whales are already on the brink of extinction and are now facing multiple new threats. One of the most pressing comes from the proposed Chuitna Coal Strip Mine, just 45 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska. The strip mine would decimate a salmon stream that is part of the Cook Inlet and supplies a portion of the Beluga’s primary food source.
You can help protect the habitat of the Cook Inlet Beluga by going to the Sierra Club’s take action page: