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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Beluga Whales

Air Date: Week of

Commentator Nancy Lord reflects on her appreciation for the mysterious Beluga whales of Cook Inlet from her home in Alaska.


CURWOOD: Scientists have learned a lot about whales in recent years, but there are still some whales who remain largely a mystery. Commentator Nancy Lord worries that one group of whales may disappear before we are able to know them.

LORD: Every summer I watch beluga whales cruise up and down Alaska's Cook Inlet. In the mud-thickened water it's hard to spot more than the rolling vinyl white backs; and, up close, the knuckly dorsal ridges. These are traveling whales, a hundred or more at a time . They make the sea look whitecapped. The air fills with the sounds of their breathing: Ppphfff ppphfff.

They are mystery whales, these belugas of Cook Inlet. We humans know almost nothing about them. We don't know where they calve, where they go in winter, what they eat. Even how many there are. This spring, I sat in a hotel conference room with North America's beluga experts: biologists, researchers, and Alaska native beluga hunters. I found out what they don't know, and a little about what they do. They know from a recent genetic study that the Cook Inlet belugas form a discrete population. These whales, of which there may be 800, have been isolated from other belugas for thousands of years. In that time, they've likely adapted physically and behaviorally to the precise conditions of their location.

Researchers at the meeting talked about plans for more genetics work: contaminant studies, surveys and satellite tagging. Hunters voiced their concerns about contaminants and habitat disturbance. They spoke, too, of the importance of whale hunting and whale meat to their cultures and diets. All 30 people in that room were there because they wanted beluga whales to continue to be part of their lives and northern waters forever.

On the third day, one of the hunters brought in a plate of beluga muktuk. The bite-sized morsels of blubber and skin were fatty and rich. The taste stuck in my mouth all afternoon. I came home. I wrote letters protesting a Federal offshore oil lease sale proposed for next year. The sale covers precisely the area where Cook Inlet's belugas are thought to congregate for winter feeding. No one knows this for sure, as no one knows what effect oil pollution has on belugas. As no one knows quite what it means that the Cook Inlet whales are unlike any others in the world.

Such information will not be known before the area gets drilled. Regardless, the leasing will proceed on schedule. This we've been told. Something about national security. Best estimates are enough oil may be found to fill two months of American demand. A few hundred whales, a few dozen whale eating families. Some of us who just like to look at those white backs cutting through the sea. We are of no concern, no consequence to those who can't wait to wring every drop of oil from the earth.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth commentator Nancy Lord live and works as a writer and commercial fisher in Homer, Alaska. She comes to us from member station KBBI.



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