With the ice gone, belugas have returned to Turnagain Arm. The best time to see the animals is in the spring and fall, so here are some facts about the popular creatures, plus pointers on how to watch them responsibly.

Ever heard of the white whale?

The fabled cetacean of "Moby-Dick" was not a beluga whale, but belugas are the only species of whale that is naturally white.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, belugas live in areas with Arctic sea ice, with about two-thirds of the world's population, estimated to be 150,000 whales, spending their summers in Canadian waters.

Aside from the color, you can identify a beluga by the lack of a dorsal fin and its bulbous head. The bump on a beluga's head is known as the melon and is used for echolocation. In order to locate food or holes in the ice that allow them to breathe, belugas send out sounds and receive echoes back from whatever those noises come into contact with.

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, a population of 1,300 belugas in Cook Inlet declined steadily. According to the Associated Press, Alaska Natives harvested nearly half the remaining 650 whales between 1994 and 1998. Though subsistence hunting ended in 1999, research shows the current population of belugas in the area remains at only about 340 animals.

Beluga whale habits

Belugas typically travel in groups, ranging from a few individuals to more than 100 during the summer months, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature.

While they can dive to depths of more than 2,000 feet, belugas spend most of their time closer to the surface. They don't jump like dolphins or killer whales, but the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says they spend roughly 5% of their time breaching the surface of the water to breathe.

Belugas are considered to be opportunistic feeders. AKDFG says that fish species make up a large part of their diet, including salmon, but they will also feed on octopus, squid, shrimp and more.

A good place to see them is right as the tide comes in to the Twentymile River, just north of Portage. They often surface as they swim down the narrow channel in search of food.

How to watch them responsibly

Viewing from shore is the easiest way to see the Cook Inlet belugas. It is also the way that disturbs them the least. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration guidelines say viewers should always stay at least 300 feet, the length of a football field, from the whales.  

Alaska is home to five stocks of beluga whales. The Beaufort Sea, Bristol Bay, Eastern Bering Sea, Eastern Chukchi Sea and Cook Inlet are all considered their own stock. The population of Bristol Bay belugas has grown in recent years, but the Cook Inlet whale population continues to decline.

Belugas are extremely sensitive to sounds and disturbances, so it is imperative that any viewer give them space and avoid disrupting any activity.

There have already been numerous beluga sightings this year, so the time to see them is now. Just remember to respect their space and report anything abnormal to NOAA's Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline at 1-877-925-7773.

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