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Bristol Bay Beluga Project

September 7, 2012 

Bristol Bay Beluga Whale Health Assessment Research Project
August 30 - September 6, 2012

Since 2008, Georgia Aquarium staff have worked with researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G), Alaska SeaLife Center, and colleagues from other leading institutions to study the health status, distribution and movements of beluga whales in Bristol Bay, Alaska. Beluga whales dwell in Arctic and sub-Arctic habitats, environments which are currently undergoing rapid change due to ever-increasing exploration for natural resources, climate change, emerging diseases and other factors. Belugas are directly impacted by these changes in their environment, and Bristol Bay is an area which is on the verge of having to deal with these possible pressures and threats. This project will gather data which will help our scientific community assess the current health status of belugas in this region, understand their seasonal use of this unique habitat, and develop a baseline for future research on this and other populations.

While Georgia Aquarium has commissioned or conducted a great deal of research on beluga whale populations in other parts of the world, not as much is known about the health of the Bristol Bay population, the impact of exposure to contaminants on the animals, or the nutritional needs of these wild belugas. As we’ve shared in the past, it is challenging to study beluga whales in their natural environment because of the remote geography and extreme climate where they occur. While there is a tremendous amount that can be learned from watching and tracking these animals in the field, these conditions make it difficult to answer important questions related to the health status of animals within the population, including responses to stress and disease exposure, immune status and hematology. To address these questions it is necessary to physically handle the animals and obtain physiological/ diagnostic samples; a practice not commonly done with beluga whales in the wild, but a skill set our Georgia Aquarium team is experienced with from our work with animals in our care.

In 2008, alongside our counterparts from federal and state agencies and other leading accredited institutions, Georgia Aquarium participated in a field study of beluga whales in the Nushagak River, a tributary of Bristol Bay, Alaska. Using animal handling methods and sampling techniques developed by beluga care experts, including those at Georgia Aquarium and other North American zoos and aquariums, the team gathered critical information about the well-being of belugas in this region. The research team attached satellite linked transmitters to monitor their movements in the bay, and successfully conducted physical exams and collected other data on 18 whales. Now we’re proud to be a key part of the next phase of this project. The data gathered will add to the baseline information from the 2008 study, thus helping us more fully comprehend how changes in their environment impact beluga whales, and will help guide efforts to apply the techniques we develop and refine to the management of other more endangered beluga populations elsewhere. Field research projects such as this one help to ensure that Georgia Aquarium and the zoological community are doing all they can to help beluga whales everywhere – an important part of our mission and our commitment to marine mammals.

In an effort to inform you and give you a first-hand look at the work being done, we’re excited to share the field notes of one of Georgia Aquarium’s animal experts Eric Gaglione, Director of Zoological Operations/Mammals & Birds, as he participates in the project. Watch for further posts from Eric and the team from the shores of Bristol Bay Alaska:


Georgia Aquarium Zoological Operations Field Log
August 30 - September 6, 2012

Thursday 8/30/12
After weeks of preparation and packing supplies today, I traveled from Atlanta to Seattle, and then to Anchorage. My bags were packed with cold weather gear, cameras, animal handling equipment, satellite tags and miscellaneous stuff needed to be out in the field for up to two weeks. I am very excited to see the team in Dillingham. Many of the participants in the project from 2008 will be on the project again. There’s a tremendous camaraderie in this group of professionals. We have a lot of fun and laugh A LOT, but what I enjoy most is the vast experience and background of the team that has been assembled to participate in this great work. We all have different skill sets and experiences, and we all learn from each other. I finished my day with a late arrival in Anchorage and settled into my hotel to get ready for tomorrow.


Friday 8/31/12
Today I arrived at Dillingham, Alaska after a one and a half hour flight from Anchorage. It was a beautiful flight over several mountain ranges. Dillingham is a unique, small fishing village in southwest, Alaska. The approximately 2,000 people that live here rely heavily on the salmon fishery, which is the largest red (sockeye) salmon run in world.

At the airport I was met by colleague’s Tim Binder of the Shedd Aquarium and Carrie Goertz from Alaska Sea Life Center. Tim and Carrie, along with a few other members of the team, had been in Dillingham for a few days to prepare our housing, equipment and other miscellaneous items. They shuttled me to our housing at a local bed and breakfast. After dropping off my gear, Tim and I drove to downtown Dillingham to join Lori Quakenbush of Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) where we unpacked and set-up the Achilles inflatable boat that would be used in collecting and handling the animals. This inflatable boat can easily maneuver in shallow water and is used by the animal handling team to get to the whales once they are gathered in shallow water. Tim and I will be the first to use this boat when we deploy to start the project.

Early this afternoon, Lori trailered the boat to our launch location along the shore of the Nushagak River, about three miles northwest of Dillingham. Tim and I launched the Achilles and took it for a test run to make sure it was operating properly. It’s great fun to get back on the water. It was a beautiful sunny day with temperatures in the mid-fifties. From just 200 yards off shore the landscape is beautiful with mountains off in the distance. The boat handled well and we are ready to go!

This evening all team members that have arrived in Dillingham gathered at the B&B for dinner. After a few laughs with friends the team reviewed plans for water operations to make sure we are well prepared should the weather cooperate for us to go out tomorrow. I was still not quite adjusted to the 4hr time difference between Dillingham and Atlanta so I went to bed early to get rested for tomorrow.


Saturday 9/1/12
It was a beautiful morning and we received word the project was a go. The team changed into dry suits, under which we wore insulated gear to keep warm when we are working in the cold (50° F) Bristol Bay water. The team loaded into boats, several of which are operated by local Alaska natives of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, and we were on the water by 930am. The local native people routinely collect and harvest beluga whales for subsistence, and are very familiar with the local waters and behavior of beluga whales in this region. We crossed the river to the south shore and within ten minutes we spotted a large male beluga. A few minutes later we were able to safely collect the 13’10” male and handle him for a health assessment. This assessment included collecting a blood sample, culture swabs from the whale’s blowhole, and samples of the whales skin and blubber tissues. The team then attached a satellite tag which allows our research team to follow the animals’ movements following its release. Tags attached to belugas as part of the 2008 field season provided location information on animals for 8 months to a year. After the handling was complete we guided the animal into deeper water and watched him swim away.

The team took a short break to eat lunch on the boats before traveling eastward along the river. We did not see any animals so we then traveled westward and entered an inlet where we saw many belugas, however many mother-calf pairs were observed so we made no attempts to catch any from this group. We then went further westward and located a 10’female and collected her on a shallow mud flat with a rising tide. We conducted the routine health assessment, attached a tag and then watched her swim away.

Georgia Aquarium's Eric Gaglione and Shedd Aquarium's Tim Binder release a beluga whale after it was fitted with a satellite tag during its routine health assessment. Photo Credit: Amanda Moors

It was a full day on the water. The boats headed back to launch site and we were back at the B&B by 7pm. The team then worked diligently to process the samples collected. This work went late into the evening and was completed at approximately 11pm.


Sunday 9/2/12
A weather system moved in and winds created poor sea conditions. Another system is tracking close behind. The team focused on getting some rest from yesterday’s long day.


Monday 9/3/12
We were weathered out again. It was windy and cold. We took some time to dry out gear in the garage and prepare for the next launch.


Tuesday 9/4/12
High winds and rain continued and operations were weathered out again. George Biedenbach, Director of Conservation Programs at Georgia Aquarium’s Conservation Field Station in St. Augustine, Florida arrived a 930am. I picked him up at the airport, gave him a quick tour of downtown Dillingham and then let him settle in at the B&B. Carrie and I spent some time sharing photos of the project with George to get him ready for work on the water.

Several members of the team took some time to hike and enjoy the scenery of Alaska. George spent some time fishing at a local stream. What a beautiful place!

Left to right: Carrie Goertz, Alaska Sea Life Center; Tim Binder, Shedd Aquarium; Mandy Keogh, Mystic Aquarium; Amanda Moors, National Institute of Standards & Technology; Laura Thompson, Mystic Aquarium; Eric Gaglione, Georgia Aquarium. Photo Credit: Brett Long


Wednesday 9/5/12

Continued high winds kept us off the water again but the storm system started settling by evening. The team was hopeful to get out tomorrow.  


Thursday 9/6/12

We launched boats today despite rougher sea conditions. It was cold on the water. We spotted a few animals but could not track them adequately to catch any for health assessments. After about three hours on the water we returned to the launch site to pack up for the day. The Achilles had some engine problems and we spent the afternoon repairing it so it would be ready for tomorrow should the weather allow.

Team searches for beluga whales in the water of Bristol Bay for routine health assessments. Photo Credit: Aran Mooney

For a continuation of Eric's field notes, read his September 7-10 log here and his September 11-13 log here!

Check back for further posts from Eric and the team from the shores of Bristol Bay, Alaska.  

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