two beluga whales swimming in cook inlet
Paul Wade/NOAA Fisheries
Cook Inlet beluga mother and calf in turbid, or cloudy, waters.

Beluga whales are highly social and vocal marine mammals. They use acoustics to navigate, find prey, avoid predators and maintain group cohesion. For Alaska’s critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga population, these crucial communications may compete with a cacophony of noise from human activities.

New research from the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is the first to document the complex vocal repertoire of the Cook Inlet beluga whale population. It is also the first to quantify how ship noise may be masking specific beluga calls in this region.

The study, published Nov. 30 in the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, finds 41 distinct types of calls, of which 18 are unique to this population. It also finds that commercial ship noise completely masks these whales’ most commonly used calls.

“The core critical habitat for these whales is a very noisy area. Commercial shipping, an international airport, military operations and gas and oil exploration are all concentrated there,” said lead author Arial Brewer, a doctoral student in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the UW who did the work in collaboration with NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center.

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