Spring is one of the most exciting times in Alaska. Everyone (and everything) comes alive. With extra daylight and warmer temperatures, our frozen waters begin to thaw, our lands go from white to brown to green, flowers and plants begin to bloom and signs of summer wildlife return.
In Naknek, spring means the arrival of the beluga whales, that chase the rainbow smelt up the river. All around town you hear people asking and exclaiming “Have you seen the belugas?! They’re in the river now!” For some, this is simply an exciting part of spring. But for many in this community, it is an important part of their culture and a way to put food on their family’s table.
“Whaling” is not an un-familiar practice for me. I spent time in Barrow growing up and have fond memories of the native peoples harvesting the bowhead whales on the beach after a successful hunt. The village would all gather around and celebrate with song, dance, and a taste of “muktuk.” It was an exciting time in those northern villages and I was fortunate to be a part of the tradition.
*Photo credit: http://thewhalehunt.org/highlights.html
But back to present time in Naknek. There are many spots around town to go and watch for the belugas. As long as you hit the tides right, you are almost guaranteed to see them this time of year. This weekend we decided to venture out and hit up two of our favorites- the Shearwater, the best coffee shop in town, and Monsen Park which sits right at the edge of the river. We grabbed some treats and hot drinks from the Shearwater and headed to the park for the afternoon. When we first arrived we saw no sign of whales. We had stopped by the park last weekend and unfortunately found it to be littered with garbage. So we had brought along garbage bags to do our civic duty and clean up the park but as it turned out- someone beat us to it! We were lucky enough to have a spotless, and freshly mowed park to ourselves. So we plopped down at a picnic table with our treats in hand and enjoyed the view of the river. Of course, we rarely sit still for too long with a three-year old in tow, so we also enjoyed running along the river banks, climbing trees, and playing fetch with Makita (our dog). Then right as we were packing up to head home, we saw them. A pod of belugas, making their way up the river. They are somewhat hard to make out as their white/grey color blends in with the grey of the river water. They are also quite a bit smaller then the humpback and orcas we see in Southeast Alaska. But if you look closely, you can see their white heads on the water’s surface. And, if your three-year old isn’t signing Moana songs at the top of her lungs, you can hear their lovely sounds as they are breaching.
It was an incredible sight. I’m slightly obsessed with whales and have never actually seen a beluga in person so I was beyond excited. Especially considering my family nickname- Beluga May.
If you know me well, you’ve heard the story. For those of you who haven’t let me side-track for a moment… When my mom was pregnant she ran through a gamut of… we’ll say interesting names for me. Buntje was on the top of that list. Yes, Buntje, pronounced like a bungee cord. Thank goodness my parents had some very caring and concerned friends who so kindly told my mother she was crazy and that she might as well name me “Beluga May” as it would lead to significantly less teasing on the playground then “Buntje.” Thus, I became known to that select group of friends as “Begula May” from that point forward.
While I am eternally grateful I did not end up with the name Buntje OR Beluga May, I am beyond thankful to have had the opportunity to see these incredible animals, and to learn about subsistence whaling from an amazing group of Bristol Bay locals.
If you would like to see the belugas for yourself, here is a link to a live feed that the National Park Service manages. It looks out to the Naknek River and if you catch it at the right time, you might just see the belugas swimming on by!
*Please note- The taking of marine mammals is prohibited by law except for Alaska Natives who take great care in ensuring they take only what they need. They also make certain to always honor the whale by using all parts for either food or to create traditional goods.
Below are pictures from our weekend adventure, as well as a friend and her family and their subsistence whale of the year.