Beluga whale takes detour up Yukon, Koyukuk rivers

Posted: Sunday, September 23, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A wayward beluga swam more than 400 miles up the Yukon River from Norton Sound, made a sharp turn north at the Koyukuk River and was spotted Friday afternoon about 145 miles upstream heading for Allakaket.

''This is the biggest excitement ever,'' Thelma Williams Nicholia, Hughes city administrator, told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''No one's ever seen a whale around here, not even the elders.''

Village children were let out of school and taken by riverboat for whale watching.

Hughes, population 78, is about 210 miles northwest of Fairbanks.

Ralph Williams, who lives about a half mile down river from Hughes, first spotted the whale about 7:30 Friday morning.

''He heard something outside and thought it was a moose,'' Nicholia said. ''He looked out towards the river and there was the whale. It was coming up for air and shooting water. He couldn't believe his eyes.''

Williams crossed the river and alerted villagers. A small convoy of riverboats began to form to trail the visitor.

''It must be a crazy whale,'' Lester Sam of Hughes said. ''I was so excited about it. I don't expect to see that thing around here.''

Sam, who has lived 60 years along Alaska rivers, spent more than three hours on the water Friday trailing and watching the whale from afar.

''I never did see whales before. I have no idea what he is going to do,'' he said.

Sam was impressed with the whale's ability to find a navigable channel. Six miles upriver from Hughes, the Koyukuk runs through a narrow, shallow passage that the villagers did not believe the whale could traverse. Sam said the beluga swam back and forth and back and forth six times until it found a passage.

Bob Small, marine mammals coordinator for the state, concluded the whale was a sub-adult when he heard it was gray and 12 to 15 feet long. Full grown belugas are white.

Small said there most likely will be no rescue effort attempted to turn the beluga around.

''In a situation like this we should just let the animal figure it out,'' he said. ''They're intelligent animals and not worth our while to get in the water and do something to it.''

With a marine mammal in the neighborhood, Hughes villagers are taking extra precautions.

''Everybody has to wear their life jackets. The whale is in the channel, not the shallow water, and that is where we drive the boats,'' Nicholia said.

Not everyone is thrilled with the unusual visitor.

''The elders think it's 'hutlaanee,' that it's not right,'' Nicholia said. ''I know one elder was praying because she thought it was 'hutlaanee.'''

According to Athabascan linguist Eliza Jones, the traditional usage of ''hutlaanee'' presages something bad.

''If you see something like that it means there is going to be some sort of epidemic of sickness,'' Jones said.

Lloyd Lowry, a retired marine mammal specialist, said it's not uncommon for belugas to go from salt to fresh water and ascend large rivers.

''There is a large group of belugas at the mouth of the Yukon at its various mouths. They certainly go up the river to St. Marys and Emmonak and every once in a while one forgets to go out,'' he said.

Groups of whales were at Tanana, 750 miles from the mouth of the Yukon, in 1982 and a single adult was seen above Rampart, 80 miles farther upstream. In 1993 four belugas were spotted further upriver near Fort Yukon.

''Nobody has a clue as to what happens to these whales,'' Lowry said.

Lowry said belugas are very good in shallow and murky water, navigating and catching fish.

''They have really good sonar. It's the best echolocation of any animal in the world. All toothed whales and bats use it,'' he said.

Biologists estimate there are 10,000 belugas in Norton Sound.

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