Sherol Mershon runs the Silver Fin Bed and Breakfast on the shore of Lake Aleknagik. She’s snagged fishing nets for 45 years and seen her fair share of wildlife. So when her guests told her they had seen whales in the lake, she had second thoughts.
But the next day, she decided to take a closer look.
“Oh my! There are beluga whales. I said, ‘You guys, get down – get down and look.’ And sure, I bet we saw seven. And they were traveling, but traveling slowly,” she said.
About a hundred feet beyond the buoys of the boat ramp, she saw pale shapes swimming in the water.
“There were two large white shadows in the water. Two big belugas there. One of the people here saw the baby sort of close to the mum, they were gray,” she said.
Belugas have been spotted in Lake Aleknagik before, but Mershon said this was the first time she had seen a beluga there.
“Some were heading towards Yako Creek,” she said. “It was fun. It was the best I’ve ever seen. The only time I’ve seen them. The only time is the last few days.
A marine mammal biologist, Lori Quakenbush, of Fish and Game, was staying at Mershon’s bed and breakfast.
“Beluga whales have no problem moving up rivers in fresh water and can stay in fresh water for long periods of time. They will follow the fish in the rivers,” she said.
Quakenbush said belugas probably venture into fresh water more often than people realize.
This spring, a pair of beluga whales swam upstream of the Kuskokwim River to Bethel – a journey of about 60 miles.
“They are very shallow water cetaceans, or small whales, so they can handle shallow river water to get into places like lakes,” she said.
The whale sightings in Lake Aleknagik were a fluke for Quakenbush, which is studying belugas in Bristol Bay this month.
“We are here to do aerial surveys to count beluga whales in Bristol Bay, which we last did in 2016,” she said. “So we are trying to do a count of the whole bay to see if we can tell if the population is declining, stable or increasing.
In 2016, there were about 2,000 belugas in Bristol Bay, Quakenbush said. Fish and Game biologists are conducting aerial surveys between Dillingham and King Salmon and do not have definitive counts for this year. But she said so far it doesn’t seem like much has changed.
The west side of Bristol Bay, including the Wood River, has seen one of the largest sockeye runs on record this summer. More than 3 million sockeye salmon have come up the wood, which flows out of Aleknagik Lake into Nushagak Bay. And although belugas eat plenty of salmon when it’s available, there’s a limit to how much fish a whale can hold.
“A big run of sockeye salmon like the one you have here in Bristol Bay is good for belugas, but they can only fill their stomachs so many times a day,” she said. “If the run was longer from start to finish, it could be a better year for the belugas than if there were more fish coming in at the normal time — they can’t really enjoy it.
Mershon, the owner of the bed and breakfast, said it was great to learn how to spot beluga whales in the lake.
“Before I’ve heard people say they’ve seen them here, but since I ran my own boat for 15 years and been in set net for 20, I was often gone” , she said. “It was really fun. . I’m really glad they came and helped me train my eyes on what beluga whales look like.
You can find out more about Bristol Bay from Fish and Game studies on belugas on the ministry’s website.
Contact the author at [email protected] or 907-842-2200.