Belugas are Back!

beluga swimmingFor the second year in a row, several beluga whales have appeared in Narragansett Bay, far from their typical haunts in the Arctic. The sighting of three belugas off Jamestown on May 10, which were spotted again the following day from Rocky Point, comes 11 months after at least two belugas were observed in the Bay. Prior to these sightings, beluga whales had never been reported in Rhode Island waters.

Read the beluga chapter from Dr. Kenney’s Marine Mammals of Rhode Island web series, published by RINHS.

Robert Kenney, marine scientist emeritus at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography and a board member of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, said the closest population of the small, white toothed whales is in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where a relict population became established after the retreat of the glaciers during the last Ice Age.

“It’s unlikely that this year’s belugas are the same animals as were here last year,” Kenney said. “The one in the West Passage last year, at least, was a juvenile with a lot of gray coloration still. This year’s three are all adults.”

Kenney, who has studied marine mammals in New England for more than 30 years, believes it is just a coincidence that belugas have been sighted in Rhode Island two years in a row after never having been seen here before. It is unlikely that the cold waters in Rhode Island from our cold winter led the animals here, as some have speculated, because there’s no way the belugas would have known about Rhode Island’s environmental conditions from their likely home in the St. Lawrence.

But Kenney said beluga whales are known to occasionally wander south, with the first one in our region off Orient Point on Long Island in 1942. Annual sightings off New York and New Jersey occurred from 1978 to 1981 and again in 1985 and 1986. In April 2005, one spent time in the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, swimming as far upriver as Trenton. There have also been occasional sightings in Cape Cod Bay.

Kenney has been in touch with the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, a Quebec-based non-profit that has been studying the St. Lawrence River population of belugas for many years. The group is hoping to match the Rhode Island whales to known individuals in their photo catalog.

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