Over the past weeks, we’ve encountered a variety of Alaskan wildlife. But one of our highlights came when we rounded a bend in the Seward Highway south of Anchorage.
Noticing a sign reading Beluga Point, my wife called to the kids, “Watch for beluga whales!” Almost on cue, a white beluga whale surfaced.
We turned off the road and piled out of the RV. For the next 30 minutes, we stood at the water’s edge, watching the graceful marine mammals glide back and forth looking for salmon, their favorite meal.
This 2019 Hakai Magazine article describes belugas as “… energetic, playful… goofy looking [and]… carefree.”
The whales are definitely all those things — but they’re also endangered:
“Intensive subsistence hunting in the 1990s crashed their number from a small but stable 1,300 to just 380. Since the hunt slowly ground to a stop after 1999, they’ve failed to rebound. And no one is sure why.”
Amorina Kingdon, the article’s author, presents her own interesting take on why. The belugas’ intricate social structure likely relies on older whales teaching survival skills to the younger ones.
Typically, the subsistence hunters killed the older, larger whales. In doing so, they deprived the young ones of the knowledge necessary to survive the harsh environment of Alaska’s frigid waters.
Kingdon observes that other animals, including elephants, caribou, bighorn sheep and wolves, seldom thrive when their “family elders” are removed.
Of the belugas themselves, she writes:
“Remarkably the matriarchs are thought to go through menopause… menopause creates a class of older animals unburdened by offspring whose primary role is to lead, teach, and help other family members survive.”
Her insight reminds me of a statistic from the orca documentary Blackfish I reviewed earlier this year:
“… male orcas younger than 30“were three times more likely to die in the year after their mother’s death” than those with surviving mothers. For males older than 30, the “risk of death increased more than eightfold.”
For Cook Inlet’s belugas, it may already be too late. I know my children will never forget the opportunity we had to witness them frolicking along the shoreline.
And I hope their struggle to survive will impress on the next generation the importance of finding a way to live in harmony with wildlife.
We climbed back in our RV. As we left the whales to their salmon hunt, my wife put on Raffi’s song Baby Beluga and we all sang along.