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Extreme tides strand dozens of belugas in Turnagain Arm

Associated Press Writer

29th August 2003

Two dead beluga whales washed ashore Friday after dozens of the animals were temporarily stranded on the mud flats of Turnagain Arm when they got caught in extreme low tides.

The dead whales apparently were among the 46 belugas that were grounded for several hours Thursday near Girdwood, about 40 miles southeast of Anchorage. The group of whales swam out with the high tide Thursday night, said Barbara Mahoney, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Mahoney watched the spectacle through binoculars as the tide moved out.

"There was a lot of movement when the water showed up," she said. "Then they just swam away."

One of the dead belugas washed ashore Friday morning below a Seward Highway pullout north of the site of the stranding.

The second whale floated to the same area about 2 p.m. just as Alaska Native hunters were salvaging the blubber from the first carcass. Fisheries officials, who have such an agreement with Native groups, said necropsies on internal organs and other body parts were planned to determine the cause of death.

Fisheries officials planned to fly over area in the next few days to see if any other whales were killed or injured, Mahoney said.

The belugas likely were feeding on silver salmon passing through Cook Inlet when tides went out farther than usual Thursday afternoon, said Mahoney, the agency's beluga whale program coordinator. The whales were unable to get away before they were beached at least a half mile on the flats.

The animals were scattered over a mile area and unreachable because of water channels in the flats.

Mahoney said the whales were stranded for hours before the incoming tide began freeing them at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

The belugas were distantly visible from the highway and a Girdwood resident, Kim Rice, spotted them shortly after noon Thursday as he pumped gasoline at a station across from the highway.

"I saw quite a few bumps out there, and I knew right away what they were," Rice said. "They were pretty far out, but I'm a fisherman. I can spot a beluga a mile away. I'm just tied to the ocean that way."

Rice reported the stranding to Alaska State Troopers in Girdwood. Troopers there notified the fisheries service, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NOAA officials said the prognosis is good for the fate of the rest of the belugas, which are considered a depleted stock in Cook Inlet under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The inlet population is geographically separate from four other beluga stocks that live in Alaska waters.

The whales were stranded on a cool, overcast, drizzly day, far less damaging than hot, dry weather, said Sheela McLean, a NOAA spokeswoman in Juneau.

Belugas generally survive temporary strandings better than larger whales, such as a gray whale that was grounded on the mud flats south of Girdwood in May. The animal fought to free itself for two days before it died.

Larger whales such as grays can grow to 46 feet and weigh 33 tons in adulthood. So if they are stranded, their enormous weight can affect their breathing and internal organs, McLean said.

Adult belugas, on the other hand, average 13 feet long and weigh 3,300 pounds. Females are smaller. They need no more than five feet of water to swim freely.

Beluga strandings are not uncommon and deaths are not unheard of, Mahoney said. The latest incident is nowhere near the largest. In June 1994, 186 belugas ran aground in the upper inlet. There were no causalities in that case, Mahoney said.

Some past strandings might have occurred when killer whales scared the belugas closer to shore, but most are caused by tidal extremes, officials said.

The aerial surveys over the next few days will focus on the arm as well as the Anchorage coastline between Potter Marsh and Point Woronzof.

"We'll be checking collection beaches where things tend to wash up," McLean said.