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Extreme tides strand dozens of belugas in Turnagain Arm

Posted: Friday, August 29, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) Dozens of beluga whales were stranded temporarily on the mud flats of Turnagain Arm when they got caught in extreme low tides, federal fisheries officials said Friday.

The 46 whales finally swam out with the high tide Thursday night, said Barbara Mahoney, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. Mahoney witnessed 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.''

A dead beluga washed ashore Friday morning below a Seward Highway pullout north of the site of the stranding. A necropsy was planned to determine the cause of death.

Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Keith Mallard said he saw at least five whales in the water shortly before noon Friday.

''We've got one dead and all the others are swimming out,'' he said. ''They're traveling pretty fast out of the arm.''

Fisheries officials planned to fly over the area Friday afternoon and through the weekend 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 near Girdwood, about 40 miles southeast of Anchorage.

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 whales attracted little attention from shore because they were so far from the edge of an area partly covered with tall grass, Mahoney said.

''It wasn't real obvious they were there,'' she said.

Still, they were distantly visible from the highway and a local resident, Tim 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.

''It's very hard on them to have the sun shine on their skin,'' McLean said. ''So the weather conditions were good.''

Belugas generally survive temporary strandings better than larger whales, such as the gray whale that was grounded on the mud flats south of Girdwood in May. The 25- to 30-foot-long 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.



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