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Norton Sound Beluga Whale Aerial Survey - Post 1

June 26, 2017

Norton Sound beluga whale survey to be conducted for first time in nearly 20 years.

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2017 Norton Sound Beluga Survey scientists (left to right): Christy Sims, Amelia Brower, and Amy Willoughby.

We have completed the first of two weeks of our Eastern Bering Sea beluga whale population aerial survey. This is a collaborative effort between the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee and the Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries.

So far, we’ve had fair weather and excellent survey coverage. As of 23 June, we’ve completed 7 out of 8 possible flight days, spent 35 flight hours in the survey aircraft, and covered over 2,700 miles.

We’ve seen 917 belugas whales, putting us well on track to being able to update the abundance estimate for this population of belugas. The majority of the beluga sightings occurred offshore of the Yukon River Delta. This is where we ‘expected’ to find these whales, based on local knowledge and previous aerial surveys conducted throughout Norton Sound from 1992-2000. Presumably, the belugas are drawn there to feed on Chinook salmon as they return to spawn upriver. For the forecast Chinook salmon run timing in the Yukon River Delta.

A Few Surprising Sightings

We’ve also seen other marine mammals during the survey including one gray whale, one minke whale, two unidentified large whales, unidentified small seals, and several walrus carcasses that we were able to document for the regional stranding networks. The gray whale was sighted approximately 12 miles south of Sledge Island, in the northwestern corner of the study area. The minke whale was sighted near shore, in the northeastern portion of Norton Sound.

Since 1992, the only whales other than belugas sighted by marine mammal aerial survey teams were lone minke whales, usually in the same general area - the northeastern Sound!

During our transits over land, we were delighted to also see some of Alaska’s beautiful countryside and land animals, including several moose in the Yukon River Delta, one brown bear, and several herds of musk oxen.

We hope we’ll continue to have good weather conditions in our second week of surveying. We need the bases of the clouds to be high enough (1,100-1,200 ft.) so that we have a clear view down to the water, and weak or no winds so that the ocean surface does not have a lot of white-capped waves. Too many whitecaps makes it difficult to spot belugas.

We look forward to sharing our second week of effort and sightings with you. Stay tuned!

Study transects for the beluga whale aerial survey in Norton Sound.

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Norton Sound Beluga Survey cumulative survey effort and beluga sightings, 16-23 June 2017. Beluga sighting symbols are scaled by group size.

Meet the Bloggers


Ameilia Brower

Amelia Brower is a NOAA Fisheries affiliate with the NOAA Fisheries' Alaska Fisheries Science Center through the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington (UW). Amelia began working with marine mammals in 2006. She has participated in marine mammal necropsies, seal, sea lion, and fur sea lion rehabilitation and diet and life history studies, bone preservation, monitoring for manatees and other marine life from dredges, oceanographic sampling, small boat surveys for toothed whales off Hawaii, and seal, sea lion, and North Atlantic right whale aerial surveys. Amelia Brower joined the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project in 2009 as a seasonal observer and as a year-round core team member in 2010. Amelia is a team leader during the field season and spends the rest of the year error-checking and analyzing data and photos and assisting with and producing reports, presentations, and scientific publications. Amelia’s work within the ASAMM data has focused on gray whale feeding in the northeastern Chukchi Sea and humpback, fin, and minke whale distribution in the Chukchi Sea. She also serves as the ASAMM polar bear data liaison.


Christy Sims

Christy Sims is a NOAA Fisheries affiliate through the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington (UW). Christy started as a photo-identification volunteer at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in 1998, and has been working with the Cook Inlet beluga whale project since completing her Masters of Marine Affairs at the UW in 2001. Christy has worked as observer and videographer on the Cook Inlet beluga aerial surveys since 2003 as well as working on photo-id projects on humpback and bowhead whales. She has also participated in Aerial Survey of Alaska Marine Mammals (ASAMM) as a team leader since 2012. When she isn't flying around Alaska in a small plane, Christy is in Seattle analyzing data or designing and managing databases.


Amy Willoughby

Amy Willoughby is a marine mammal biologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center. Amy began her career on the sandy beaches of Florida’s Atlantic coast where she conducted sea turtle nesting surveys. She took to the skies in 2009 as an aerial survey observer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s North Atlantic right whale Early Warning System project. Since then she has logged hundreds of flight hours searching for protected marine species in the Gulf of Mexico and coastal waters from New Jersey to South Carolina. Amy has been involved in numerous field projects, conducting research on a range of species including salmon, marbled murrelets, bottlenose dolphins, ice-associated seals, and polar bears. In 2014, Amy headed to the Alaska Arctic for a seasonal position with the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project as a marine mammal observer and was fortunate to have the project invite her on as a full-time employee. Since then, she has worked for ASAMM year-round on fieldwork logistics, data management and analysis, and reports, and she serves as team leader and walrus data liaison during field operations.