Beluga dialogue

Residents' stories of interactions with beluga whales gathered

Ian Dutton, Alaska SeaLife Center's chief executive officer, is not your average CEO.
Dutton is a researcher in his own right, which is why he has taken the lead on the center's newest research project - an oral history of beluga whales in Cook Inlet.
"This is fun," Dutton said. "The work that we're doing here is really good work. This is making a real contribution to something that's not otherwise been captured."
Dutton, along with his team consisting of Janet Klein of Homer, Karen Cain of Anchorage and Ricky Deel, the center's exhibit leader, have been gathering first-hand accounts of belugas in Cook Inlet through interviews. The team was in Kenai last week to interview residents. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services started using systematic data in 1994, so the team's focus is history that took place prior.
"We thought we'd fill in that gap by asking people who lived here, fished here and worked here over the last 100 years to see what they know and what they could share with us," Dutton said.
The goal, Dutton said, is to improve knowledge of belugas, the understanding of their habitat and the impacts of human activities on the beluga habitat based on people's knowledge.
The project is just one of many funded by a grant from the Kenai Peninsula Borough to collect data on the whales around the borough. The group's findings will be included in an exhibit at the SeaLife Center in January.
"If we can use the exhibit to share people's knowledge - it's much more real than a report," Dutton said.
So far, the project has been well received by the public.
"Our team will have interviewed about 100 people in the next month," Dutton said. "Which is a lot of information, the reaction has been fantastic.
"People are coming forth with a lot of good observations and great stories on how things have changed throughout the last 50 years."
From the interviews, Dutton can notice the relationships communities share with the whales.
"You can see what these animals have meant to them in their lives," he said. "People over the years who have had personal interactions with Belugas - that's had a lasting impact on them."
Klein said being able to share people's experiences has been an exciting aspect of the research.
"Many people are reluctant at first because we're asking them to go back decades," Klein said. "Once you start talking with them, the stories and observations come out - they start remembering more things."
She acknowledges that most people are not used to sharing their stories with people other than their family members.
"This is an opportunity for them to share things they've never shared before," Klein said. "As a historian, I go after their history, their family history, community history - this is exciting for me also."
Cain thinks the project has educational value as well as scientific value.
"We're getting the word out about belugas," she said. "Surveys have indicated that people don't know how many we even have in the inlet. If asked, they'll say, ‘Oh, a couple thousand,' and really - there's only 300-plus."
Cain said now is an important time to conduct the project because the elderly population is starting to pass away and take their stories with them.
"We are getting these histories from people that are in the next 10-15 years are going to pass away," she said. "So this is a vital time to be doing it."
Dutton used one of his biggest frustrations as inspiration for not only this project, but everything the SeaLife Center does.
"One of my great frustrations is that a lot of people that do science in Alaska, don't live in Alaska," he said. "So we make a major contribution by putting people in the community that are contributing to society in every level.
"That's pretty important for a community the size of Seward."
Deel is the exhibit leader for the SeaLife Center, and since he is still fairly new to Alaska, this project gives him a unique chance to learn about Alaska up close.
"It's really exciting to get to know a place by its history like this," he said. "Hopefully we'll start seeing some photographs that will relate to the maps we're looking at the stories we've heard.
"It's a neat way to get to know a community."
As the team hosts interviews and pieces together information, Deel's job is to figure out how to harness the information and make it interactive at the center.
"It's exciting to piece together how this exhibit will function at the SeaLife Center to get across this message," he said. "That's the part I enjoy."
The project should be wrapped up within the next couple of months, and the exhibit should open sometime in January.

Logan Tuttle can be reached at