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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, 16-29 June 2017. Beluga sighting symbols are scaled by group size.   Figure: Megan Ferguson, NOAA Fisheries

 
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And that’s a Wrap!

July 12, 2017 -- Our time in Norton Sound sure flew by! We wrapped up our survey of the Eastern Bering Sea stock of beluga whales on June 29th with an impressive amount of survey effort. We flew 16 flights in the 14-day period. Even though we had two ‘down days’ due to weather, we had 4 days when we flew two survey flights, averaging eight to nine hours of flying each of those days! We flew 66 hours in the study area and logged 9600 miles.

Most importantly, we were able to survey what is considered the prime habitat for Eastern Bering Sea belugas around the Yukon River Delta three times in two weeks. We also covered the majority of the tracklines over the rest of Norton Sound twice. That is a lot of flying!

The belugas were concentrated around the Yukon River Delta, and north of Pastol Bay and Stuart Island out to the middle of Norton Sound. This distribution is similar to surveys in 1992-2000, except the region offshore and north of Unalakleet had much higher densities of beluga sightings in our current study.

On our last survey day, although weather conditions were excellent, we had only a few beluga sightings. However, we were surprised and pleased with an unusual sighting of six killer whales approximately 30 miles west of Stuart Island, off the Yukon River Delta. We are hopeful the aerial photos of the killer whales will give us some insight into whether they are fish- or marine mammal-eaters. The turbid waters of the delta made it difficult to obtain photos that can be used for photo identification, but we took our best shots.

 
NOAA Fisheries, Norton Sound Beluga Survey, photo of Killer whale in Norton Sound, Alaska
Killer whale sighted approximately 30 miles west of Stuart Island in Norton Sound, Alaska, 29 June 2017.  
Photo: Christy Sims, NOAA Fisheries

 

NOAA Fisheries, Norton Sound Beluga Survey, photo of Killer whale adult and calf in Norton Sound, Alaska
Killer whale adult and calf sighted approximately 30 miles west of Stuart Island in Norton Sound, Alaska, 29 June 2017.   Photo: Christy Sims, NOAA Fisheries

 

Additionally, we were happy to find a gray whale mom and calf in the clear waters approximately 80 miles west of Stuart Island, off the Yukon River Delta, and were able to circle and photograph the whales to later search for identifying characteristics on the adult whale’s fluke.

 
NOAA Fisheries, Norton Sound Beluga Survey, photo of Gray whale cow and calf in Norton Sound, Alaska
Gray whale cow and calf sighted approximately 80 miles west of Stuart Island in Norton Sound, Alaska, 29 June 2017.   Photo: Christy Sims, NOAA Fisheries

 

Now that we’ve packed up and returned home, our project leadership will start the process of reviewing and analyzing the data we collected over the past two weeks to estimate the population abundance of the Eastern Bering Sea beluga stock.

 

 



Post by: Christy Sims, Amelia Brower, and Amy Willoughby




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