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Bristol Bay Project 3

September 14, 2012 

Conclusion: Bristol Bay Beluga Whale Health Assessment Research Project
September 11-13, 2012

Eric Gaglione, Georgia Aquarium’s Director of Zoological Operations/Mammals & Birds, has spent the last two weeks in Alaska as part of a team of researchers studying the health status, hearing, distribution, and movements of beluga whales in Bristol Bay. The team, made up of staff from federal and state agencies, universities, private veterinary contract firms, and a few other accredited aquariums, wrapped up the beluga whale health assessment research project on Wednesday.

The researchers’ goal was to work with 8 to 10 whales, and give each of them a thorough health exam, test their hearing, and fit them with a satellite tag. Their expectations were met when they completed the final day of the trip by tagging whale #9. The team is excited to head home and analyze all of the information gathered. Continue reading to see the conclusion of Eric’s field notes highlighting his experience on this exciting conservation project.


Georgia Aquarium Zoological Operations Field Log
September 11-13, 2012

Tuesday 9/11/12
On the way back to Kanakanak beach last night the water was smooth, the sky blue, and the landscape pristine. A bald eagle flew over our boat as we approached the launch site. It was another surreal moment for me as I enjoy my time in Alaska. This morning when we arrived at the beach it was raining, cold (approximately 40˚ F), and visibility was approximately ½ mile. The water conditions were acceptable, and given we just have two days left, we braved the weather and headed out. We spotted a few whales but were unsuccessful collecting any of them. After about four hours, the weather and water conditions worsened. To keep the team safe, we called it a day and returned to the launch site to recover our boats.

The team preparing the Achilles inflatable on Kanakanak Beach. Photo Credit: Mandy Keogh

The early afternoon allowed time to rest and prepare our equipment for our last day. It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Alaska for eleven days. This project is so much fun that I’ve lost track of time. I spent the evening chatting with Rod Hobbs from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) of NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Rod is the Beluga Projects Leader and is the Principal Investigator (PI) for this study. Rod spends 90% of his time studying the endangered population of beluga whales in Cook Inlet, Alaska. The Bristol Bay Project was stimulated by Rod in an effort to better understand this population and refine handling and sampling techniques for potential use on belugas living in Cook Inlet.

Additionally, he hopes to be able to one day compare the two populations (Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet) to better understand why the Cook Inlet population continues to decline. Tonight he shared with me the latest signals from the whales we’ve tagged over the last 11 days. The tags send signals to an Argos System satellite. Rod can log into Argos with his computer to check the location of the whales, along with their travel patterns since their tag was applied. The map below reflects the whale locations for the past ten days overlaid onto a map of the area. Rod commented that the whales seem to be moving out of the upper river areas and are spending more time further south in the estuary of the Nushagak River where it enters Nushagak Bay.

Satellite map of beluga whale tags tracking area 

As I mentioned in an earlier post, one aspect about this experience I really enjoy is the opportunity to work with such a talented group of professionals. The team assembled here is a combination of experts of different disciplines including: research, animal care and handling, veterinary medicine and pathology, and laboratory analysis. It is an incredible experience and learning opportunity to spend two weeks living with and working alongside such a great group of people. Here is a list of the facilities and respective people involved in this project:

National Marine Mammal Laboratory, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA

  • Rod Hobbs, Principal Investigator (PI), Beluga & Small Cetacean Projects Leader
  • Manolo Castellote, Independent Contractor
Alaska Department of Fish & Game
  • Lori Quakenbush, Arctic Marine Mammal Program, Program Leader
Alaska SeaLife Center
  • Carrie Goertz, Staff Veterinarian 
  • Brett Long, Husbandry Director 
  • Russ Andrews, ASLC Research Scientist/Assistant Professor, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Alaska Pacific University
  • Leslie Cornick, Associate Professor of Marine Biology
Alaska Veterinary Pathology Service
  • Kathy Burek, Veterinary Pathologist 
  • Katie Royer, Technician
  • Stephanie Norman, Wildlife Veterinarian & Epidemiologist
National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST)
  • Amanda Moors, Research Biologist
Georgia Aquarium
  • Eric Gaglione, Director of Zoological Operations / Mammals & Birds 
  • George Biedenbach, Director of Conservation Programs / Georgia Aquarium Conservation Filed Station
Mystic Aquarium
  • Mandy Keogh, Research Scientist 
  • Laura Thompson, PhD Candidate
Shedd Aquarium
  • Tim Binder, Vice President of Collection Planning 
  • Lisa Naples, Veterinarian
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
  • Aran Mooney, Assistant Scientist

Tomorrow is our last day in Dillingham, and the team remains very optimistic for good weather and more whales. The project is already a success with the six animals we’ve handled so far, but we’d love to have the chance to perform health assessments on a few more. Wish us luck!


Wednesday 9/12/12
Well today was the last day of the project. This morning, Rod Hobbs checked the locations of the animals we recently tagged and found that five of six of them had moved southwest to the Snake River estuary. Given this information, along with the fact we observed fewer whales in Wood and Upper Nushagak Rivers over the last number of days, we planned to go to this location. The tides allowed us to depart a bit earlier and we were on the water by 9:30 am.

Traveling to the Snake River is a longer distance and the area has huge mud flats, which complicates things for the boat drivers. After a 50 minute boat ride we came across a group of ~6 whales. We were able to catch a male beluga measuring over 13 feet long. He was a handsomely large whale with brilliantly white skin, and a large, ‘floppy’ melon (a beluga whale's bulbous forehead). Given the tide and location, we had to hold the animal in slightly higher, waist-deep water. Tidal fluctuations in Alaska are significant and at this time of year we are seeing 17 foot changes between high and low tides. Depending on time of day and location, this can be a real challenge for the team. We did well and successfully conducted a full health assessment, hearing test, and satellite tag application.

After enjoying a short lunch while floating in the mouth of the Snake River, we proceeded up river and quickly located the largest group of whales we've seen so far (approximately 15-20 animals). It was so cool to see a pod of belugas like this, as up until now we’ve only observed single animals or whales travelling in small groups. They were swimming over a shallow mud flat and we were able to isolate an adult female to examine. This was our eighth whale, and as we conducted her health assessment, I had to admire how proficient this team had become. The group has gotten stronger and more efficient each time we’ve handled a whale, and are able to accomplish so much in such a short period of time.

Eric Gaglione and Lori Quakenbush (ADF&G) handling beluga whale for health assessment in shallow water. Photo Credit: Mandy Keogh

At the onset of the project our goal was to work with 8-10 whales. We had achieved eight and the extra two days on the water had paid off. Since we were so timely in locating animals and proficient in their exams, we had time and energy for more. This time we headed out of the Snake River and quickly located a pair of large, adult females. We handled one of them for full health assessment. She was an older female with lots of blubber. Belugas get what are sometimes called ‘blubber rails’ along their sides. These are significant deposits of blubber running down both sides of the whale from just behind its pectoral flipper to its caudal peduncle and almost look like the pontoons on a river raft. This female had big ones!

 Left to right: Russ Andrews, Rod Hobbs, Stephanie Norman, Aran Mooney, Eric Gaglione, Lori Quakenbush, George Biedenbach, Carrie Goertz. Photo Credit: Russ Andrews for the team (via timer)

Upon the completion of the tag attachment to animal #9, the team had a moment to reflect on the tremendous success of the project. Today was the most productive day as we handled three whales. It was a very long day and it was time to celebrate; we achieved our goal! We took a moment for a team photo, and while we were still in the field, some of us still had mud on our face. After the team picture we watched one of the most beautiful Alaskan sun sets I've ever seen.

Alaskan sunset. Photo Credit: Eric Gaglione


Thursday 9/13/12

Today was clean up, pack and travel day. We all woke up exhausted as it seems as if we've been working on adrenaline for the past week. The fatigue has set in! Yesterday was exciting, but it was also a very long day. Today we all woke up at 6:00 am to allow for six hours of work before we had to catch our mid-day flight to Anchorage. The team rallied to clean and pack gear; breakdown the Achilles inflatable boat; pack and ship tools, samples, and equipment; and clean up the B&B.

While spending time in Dillingham, I enjoyed immersing myself in the Alaskan native culture, and learning about issues impacting their lives. There is a proposed effort to start a large mining operation at a location near the headwaters that feed into the Bristol Bay watershed. While this issue is highly debated, most people of Dillingham are against it because, from their perspective, it could potentially have a devastating environmental impact. They are worried minerals and materials used in the mine will contaminate the local rivers and bays. If this were to happen it could devastate the fishery and have a negative impact on the beluga whales frequenting these waters. The Bristol Bay salmon fishery not only has monetary influence, but more importantly it is a longstanding part of the Alaskan native culture. I now have a greater appreciation of how the native people of this a area utilize their precious natural resources, and appreciate and respect the efforts they are making to speak out against this development in an effort to conserve the habitat and animals on which they depend.

As I write this final post to this blog, I am on a flight from Dillingham to Anchorage. Sitting next to me is Dr. Carrie Goertz of the Alaska SeaLife Center. In addition to providing the veterinary care during the project, she executed many of the logistics needed to assemble the team and lab operations in Dillingham. She did a wonderful job and I have deep respect for her efforts and passion for this project. I worked with Carrie at the Mystic Aquarium many years ago and it was great to spend time with her along with other colleagues. Tim Binder of Shedd Aquarium, who was here with us at the beginning of the project, also worked with us at Mystic Aquarium. We had a great time reminiscing about our time together there.

Now that the field portion of the project is complete, I am excited to learn from all of the researchers involved as they analyze the plethora of data from the samples taken during the health assessments. I now look forward to returning to Atlanta and to my regular duties at Georgia Aquarium. Opportunities to assist with field research projects like this one helps to increase our understanding of animals in our care, and positively impacts us as zoological professionals. I am excited to see my team and share what we’ve learned in Bristol Bay. Lastly I am really looking forward to getting home to see my wife Joyce, son Brett, and daughter Kelsey, who are always so supportive of me and the work that I do.

Beluga whale with satellite tag swimming in Snake River. Photo Credit: Russ Andrews


To read Eric's previous field logs, please click here:
Field Notes 8/30-9/6
Field Notes 9/7-9/10

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