DENALI PARK--A dead beluga whale, found on the shore of the Tanana River 15 miles upstream from Nenana, offers the first tangible evidence that these marine mammals venture upriver far into the Interior.
Biologists recovered the carcass of the 8-foot-long beluga whale, believed to be a 2-year-old, and delivered it to the laboratory at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Scientists will examine the whale and try to learn where it came from and how it died.
Four canoeists from Denali found the beached whale last weekend when they pulled to shore while paddling from Fairbanks to Nenana. They chose the spot purely by happenstance, intending to change into dry clothes. They noticed something unusual as soon as they stepped out of their boats and looked at the beach.
An oddly shaped carcass lay there. "Is it a seal?" they initially wondered. "Is it a prehistoric salmon?" they jokingly asked each other.
Closer inspection made identification immediate and unbelievable.
"It's a whale," declared Willie Karidis, executive director of the Denali Foundation. "But it CAN'T be a whale."
"A beluga whale," added his wife, Christine.
Upon his return to Denali, Karidis notified Barbara Mahoney at the National Marine Fisheries Service in Anchorage and Link Olson, the curator of mammals at the Museum of the North.
After a flurry of phone calls and e-mails, they hatched a plan to recover the whale.
On Wednesday, Sylvia Brunner, a marine mammal researcher at the UA Museum, headed upriver from Nenana in an Alaska Department of Fish and Game boat piloted by state biologist Tom Seaton. Willie and Christine Karidis accompanied the two to help locate the whale and assist with its retrieval. Together, the four made quick work of salvaging what was left of the animal.
Scavengers had already started in on the whale, making sex determination difficult, but despite its advanced stage of decomposition, it nonetheless represents a scientific coup.
"I've seen--and smelled--much worse," said Brunner, who spends part of every summer salvaging beach-cast marine mammals from Alaska's extensive coastline for the museum's collection. "Appearances notwithstanding, this one's a real gem," she added.
Beluga whales are quite distinctive. They are small-toothed whales that inhabit coastlines and estuaries, often living amid pack ice. They are easily recognizable by their white color, prominent rounded melon on their forehead--used for echolocation, a kind of sonar that has evolved independently in bats and whales for navigation--stout bodies and lack of a dorsal fin.
But this particular creature was more than 1,000 river miles from any ocean or coastline and would have had to swim from the Bering Sea, hundreds of miles up the Yukon River, then up the Tanana River.
According to the state Fish and Game Web site, it is not unusual for belugas to swim up large rivers like the Yukon River. Lack of salinity doesn't seem to affect them.
In 1982, a group of whales was seen at the village of Tanana, 750 miles from the mouth of the Yukon River. A single adult was reported seen above Rampart, 80 miles farther upstream. In 1993, four belugas were spotted near Fort Yukon.
But all those sightings pale in comparison to recovering an actual specimen, according to Olson.
"We know they swim up rivers, presumably following fish on their return to spawning grounds," said Olson. "This discovery has pretty serious implications for their behavior and ecology. One question everyone will have is, when did this particular individual come upriver? If it's over a couple of weeks ago, and even right now, there's just a couple inches of visibility. They echolocate so they have to rely on that to navigate upriver.
"Put yourself in the beluga's position, trying to cope with swimming upriver during breakup, with submerged trees and debris hurtling downstream," he said.
What is even more exciting is the possibility that the whale was not alone.
"Was it part of a small pod?" Olson wondered, "or possibly with its mother?"
Scientists will collect samples for genetic analysis, which may help solve some of the mystery. Tooth samples will reveal the whale's age and DNA analysis can reveal the whale's gender, according to Mahoney of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
"If it came up the Yukon, it's probably from the Eastern Bering Sea population," said Mahoney. "We will run genetics and identify exactly what pod it is from."
Brunner also salvaged the stomach, which may reveal what the whale had eaten in its final days or hours, another mystery given how early in the season it swam upriver.
At the very least, Olson said, the museum will add the specimen to its rapidly growing marine mammal collection.
The museum's colony of dermestid beetles will eat the remaining flesh from the skull and skeleton, and tissue samples for genetic analysis will be stored in liquid nitrogen with samples from more than 70,000 other mammal specimens.
Whether scientists will be able to uncover the full story of how the beluga whale came to be on the Tanana River remains to be seen. Olson said he is jubilant to have a specimen that confirms whales travel this far into the Interior.
"Anecdotal accounts can be credible and compelling, particularly when backed up by photographs, but an actual specimen is irrefutable and provides much more scientific information," he said.
But finding the whale and identifying it is only the beginning.
As one of the canoeists who found it said, "That's where the mystery begins, not ends."
Kris Capps is a freelance writer who lives in Denali. She can be reached at email@example.com
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