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An Update from the Bristol Bay Beluga Project

October 1, 2014

An Update from the Bristol Bay Beluga Project

Georgia Aquarium continues to support a collaborative study of beluga whales within Bristol Bay. This ongoing project, initiated in May 2008, recently completed a fifth season. Personnel from National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML), National Institute of Standards and Technology, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Alaska SeaLife Center, Alaska Veterinary Pathology Services, Georgia Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium/Sea Research Foundation, Shedd Aquarium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution as well as the local community were involved in the planning, coordination, and execution of this project. Funding, originally primarily through NMML, has transitioned with Georgia Aquarium providing the financial support for the project infrastructure and individual researchers obtaining supplemental funding.

Eric Gaglione (L) and Dennis Christen (C), along with Rod Hobbs (R) from NMML release a beluga whale fitted with a satellite tag following its health assessment in Bristol Bay, while Justin Richards (Background) from Mystic Aquarium observes. Russ Andrews Photo

The project's initial focus was on beluga whale habitat use in Bristol Bay. This involved handling and tagging whales with long term satellite tags which recorded location data and transmitted the information to the research team via satellite link. Handling beluga whales provided the opportunity to broaden the scope of the studies by obtaining biological samples. Georgia Aquarium expertise along with other aquarium professionals have and continue to assist with these techniques which are well refined as part of routine animal care procedures in an aquarium setting.

Georgia Aquarium¹s Dennis Christen (left) and Eric Gaglione (right) assist with routine health assessment of a Bristol Bay Beluga Whale.

This allowed investigations into other aspects of the health and life history of beluga whales in Bristol Bay. These studies are important to better comprehend the status of belugas in Bristol Bay, but are also valuable in understand the plight of the endangered beluga whale population in Cook Inlet. Additionally, in 2012, hearing was tested for the first time in wild belugas, utilizing the same technique used to assess hearing in human infants, and continued this year. This year foraging investigations have been expanded by recording individual animal¹s vocalization and echolocation (biological sonar) in their attempts to locate and consume prey. Over the course of five seasons approximately 48 whales have been handled for the project.

Read more on our past involvement and efforts with the Bristol Bay Beluga project in previous blog posts:  Bristol Bay Beluga Whale Health Assessment Research Project, Conclusion: Bristol Bay Beluga Whale Health Assessment Research Project and  Follow Up: Bristol Bay Beluga Whale Health Assessment Research Project 2012.

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