ANCHORAGE - Federal researchers working with Tlingit elders have concluded that beluga whales spotted near Yakutat are likely permanent residents - 600 miles from the nearest confirmed population.
Elders and other old-timers told researchers the whales are seen in the area more regularly than has been documented in scientific journals.
"I'd say it's probably an old population, smaller than it used to be," added biologist Bill Lucey, with the Yakutat Salmon Board. "I think they've always been here, but until Western science documents it, then it's a new population. But talking to the old guys, they knew about it back in the '50s."
Though the tribe doesn't have a tradition of hunting the whales, one elder recalled an old Tlingit word for beluga while others described seeing them as far back as the 1930s, said Bert Adams Jr., environmental director for the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe.
"That's the first time when we had heard about them going back that far," Adams told the Anchorage Daily News.
To tap into such knowledge, federal biologist Greg O'Corry-Crowe has begun a long-term study to gather traditional ecological knowledge about the whales from Native elders and longtime residents, with help from Adams, Lucey, biologist Rod Hobbs at the National Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle and several others. O'Corry-Crowe is a researcher from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in California who has worked on several Alaska whale studies.
The researchers have observed belugas visiting the same isolated cove in spring and fall and have taken a tissue sample for genetic studies. What they find out this fall and winter could lead to further scientific work.
The Yakutat project, still in early stages, adds to a growing realization that Alaska's common white whale may be far more wide-ranging than expected, researchers said.
Once thought limited to shallow estuaries and tidal flats, beluga whales have been tracked by satellite swimming through two-mile-deep water under solid ice halfway to the North Pole.