Study looks at migratory secrets of Beluga whales

Tracking shows some whales travel 500 to 700 miles in annual journey

Posted: Monday, January 13, 2003

ANCHORAGE - A summer study found that beluga whales from Point Lay roamed deep into the Arctic Ocean.

Two satellite-tracked young whales swam hundreds of miles into almost solid pack ice. A female beluga traveled almost 700 miles before returning to waters near Point Barrow. A male cruised 500 miles northeast.

While the whales didn't go as far north as some big male belugas tracked in previous years, the two adolescents still traced remarkable journeys, said biologist Robert Suydam, a wildlife manager and researcher with the North Slope Borough.

"My guess with all these guys is they're just looking for good things to eat," Suydam told the Anchorage Daily News. "Maybe they're out there chasing big schools of Arctic cod. But we don't know."

Numbering at least 65,000 in four stocks, Alaska's Arctic belugas have long congregated in estuaries and along the ice edge in summer from Bristol Bay to the Beaufort Sea. Hunters from more than 40 Alaska villages harvest the whales in subsistence hunts co-managed for a decade by the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

To discover their migratory secrets, a team of scientists and Alaska Native hunters have been capturing belugas most years since 1997 in Kasegaluk Lagoon near Point Lay and equipping them with $4,500 half-watt satellite tracking tags.

What they've discovered suggests Alaska's common white whale travels farther through ice-covered ocean with far more ease than anyone thought possible. For instance, big males migrated in 1998 and 1999 to the same area of deep sea about halfway to the North Pole. The findings stunned whale biologists at the time.

This year, the team wanted to capture females and younger whales to see whether they had different habits or stayed closer to shore. Two males stuck relatively close to Alaska, traveling only a few hundred miles. The other two whales - a 10-foot, 6-inch female and a 9-foot male - took the season's epic trips. No other female whale had ever been tracked as far, Suydam said.

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