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Dispatches from the field

Norton Sound beluga whale aerial survey


Norton Sound Beluga Survey cumulative survey effort
Norton Sound Beluga Survey cumulative survey effort and beluga sightings, 16-23 June 2017. Beluga sighting symbols are scaled by group size.   Figure: Megan Ferguson, NOAA Fisheries

Norton Sound
What's Happening
June 26
July 12
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Off to a good start!

June 26, 2017 -- We have completed the first of two weeks of our Eastern Bering Sea beluga whale population aerial survey. This is a collaborative effort between the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee and the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries.

So far, we’ve had fair weather and excellent survey coverage. As of 23 June, we’ve completed 7 out of 8 possible flight days, spent 35 flight hours in the survey aircraft, and covered over 2,700 miles.

We’ve seen 917 belugas whales, putting us well on track to being able to update the abundance estimate for this population of belugas. The majority of the beluga sightings occurred offshore of the Yukon River Delta. This is where we ‘expected’ to find these whales, based on local knowledge and previous aerial surveys conducted throughout Norton Sound from 1992-2000. Presumably, the belugas are drawn there to feed on Chinook salmon as they return to spawn upriver. For the forecast Chinook salmon run timing in the Yukon River Delta, see

Belugas sighted in 2010 in the northeastern Chukchi Sea
Belugas sighted in 2010 in the northeastern Chukchi Sea during the BOEM-sponsored Chukchi Offshore Monitoring in Drilling Area marine mammal aerial surveys. Photos have not been taken of belugas during the Norton Sound beluga survey due to water turbidity and survey protocols limiting circling of the sightings.   Photo: NOAA Fisheries


A few surprise sightings

We’ve also seen other marine mammals during the survey including one gray whale, one minke whale, two unidentified large whales, unidentified small seals, and several walrus carcasses that we were able to document for the regional stranding networks. The gray whale was sighted approximately 12 miles south of Sledge Island, in the northwestern corner of the study area. The minke whale was sighted near shore, in the northeastern portion of Norton Sound.

Since 1992, the only whales other than belugas sighted by marine mammal aerial survey teams were lone minke whales, usually in the same general area - the northeastern Sound!

During our transits over land, we were delighted to also see some of Alaska’s beautiful countryside and land animals, including several moose in the Yukon River Delta, one brown bear, and several herds of musk oxen.

We hope we’ll continue to have good weather conditions in our second week of surveying. We need the bases of the clouds to be high enough (1,100-1,200 ft.) so that we have a clear view down to the water, and weak or no winds so that the ocean surface does not have a lot of white-capped waves. Too many whitecaps makes it difficult to spot belugas.

We look forward to sharing our second week of effort and sightings with you. Stay tuned!

2017 Norton Sound Beluga Survey scientists (left to right): Christy Sims, Amelia Brower, and Amy Willoughby
2017 Norton Sound Beluga Survey scientists (left to right): Christy Sims, Amelia Brower, and Amy Willoughby.   Photo: NOAA Fisheries



Post by: Christy Sims

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