Beluga Whales

Cook Inletkeeper, a community-based nonprofit, is ensuring the survival of critically endangered Cook Inlet Beluga Whales as part of its mission to protect Alaska’s Cook Inlet watershed and the life it sustains.

Founded in 1994 by a group of Alaskans who met for a workshop on environmental law, science and policy, Cook Inletkeeper combines advocacy, education, and science for a vibrant and healthy Cook Inlet watershed.

Cook Inletkeeper has an impressive list of environmental accomplishments. It is interesting to note that the organization won 3 years of start up funding from oil and gas producers in a 1995 lawsuit:

Alaska Center for the Environment, Greenpeace and Trustees for Alaska – joined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – sued Cook Inlet oil and gas producers (Unocal, Shell-Western & Marathon) for over 4,200 Clean Water Act violations. The oil and gas companies settled the lawsuit rather than face hefty penalties in court, and directed 3 years of start-up funding to Cook Inletkeeper.

Most recently, Cook Inletkeeper was awarded the 2009 River Warrior Award.

Status of the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale

The Cook Inlet Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) is a distinct population of approximately 375 individuals.

As of October 2008, this subpopulation is included on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered.

The seriousness of IUCN’s Critically Endangered classification is not to be taken lightly. If a species does not recover from Critically Endangered (CR), the population can continues to decline until it reaches the next classification, Extinct in the Wild (EW), and finally, Extinct (EX).

About beluga whales

A compilation of interesting facts about beluga whales:

Belugas are extremely social animals that typically migrate, hunt, and interact together in groups of 10 to several hundred. They are known as the “canaries of the sea,” because they produce a vast repertoire of sounds including whistles, squeals, moos, chirps, and clicks They have a well-developed sense of hearing and echolocation, and are reported to have acute vision both in and out of water.

  • Belugas do not have a dorsal fin; Delphinapterus means “dolphin-without-a-wing”
  • They are the only whales with a flexible neck that allows them to turn their heads. This feature appears to be an adaptation to maneuvering and catching prey in muddy or ice-covered areas.
  • Natural predators of the beluga whale are polar bears and killer whales
  • Length: 15 feet (males); up to 14 feet (females)
  • Weight: Adult males 3000 lbs.; females 2000 lbs.
  • Lifespan: 30+ years
  • Diet: Whatever fish species are most common including salmon, eulachon, tomcod, smelt, char, rainbow sole, whitefish, saffron cod and arctic cod, herring, shrimp, mussels and octopus.
  • Gestation: 15 months (it takes a long time to make a beluga whale!)
  • Number of offspring: 1 calf
  • Young Belugas are dark grey in color. They lighten as they mature – reaching their distinctive pure white color by the age of seven for females, and nine for males.

About the Cook Inlet watershed

The watershed encompasses Alaska’s most diverse and unique ecosystems including the alpine tundra of the Denali wilderness, coastal rainforests of the southern Kenai Peninsula, and abundant wetlands of the Susitna, Kenai and Matanuska river deltas. Cook Inlet’s marine environment has been noted by scientists as among the most productive ecosystems in the world.

  • The watershed stretches 430 miles from its northernmost tip to its southernmost tip, and 220 miles from its easternmost reaches to its westernmost reaches.
  • Cook Inlet is 192 miles long
  • 8,000 square miles is saltwater
  • The watershed drains 39,000 square miles (about the size of the US State of Virginia)

Cook Inlet Beluga Whales in the news

The Cook Inlet Beluga Whales were in the news earlier this year when the State of Alaska’s (former, as of July 25) governor,  in a brazen attempt to “ignore science”, threatened to overturn the protection given to this critically endangered species.

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