Coast Guard, ADF&G retrieve wayward beluga whale acoustic mooring

KODIAK, Alaska - Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris Moore, an aviation survival technician with Air Station Kodiak, works to recover an acoustic mooring from a beach at the north end of Shelikof Strait April 28, 2011. The mooring was noticed by Kodiak-resident Mark Withrow on a boating trip and reported to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who uses the mooring for whale research. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Wayne Langley.

Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Wayne Langley

KODIAK, Alaska – A Coast Guard MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew from Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak with an Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist aboard recovered a wayward acoustic mooring from a beach on the north end of Shelikof Strait Thursday.

The mooring, valued at about $20,000, was noticed by Kodiak-resident Mark Withrow while he was out on his boat in the strait and he reported his finding to ADF&G. It was located several hundred feet up on a beach in the splash zone just beyond the intertidal zone among a lot of beached logs.

“Because of the location we couldn’t have done this without the Coast Guard,” said Larry Van Daele, the Kodiak-based wildlife biologist who accompanied the aircrew. “Due to the lumber and the steep angle of the beach we couldn’t use a wheel plane to land on the beach, so ADF&G through our National Marine Fisheries Service counterparts requested Coast Guard assistance to retrieve the mooring.”

The Coast Guard crew flew from Kodiak to the beach under overcast skies and through rain showers. Upon their arrival they could not land and elected to lower the Coast Guard rescue swimmer, Petty Officer 3rd Class Chris Moore, to the beach. Once on the ground, Moore located the mooring and was able to carry it down the beach, free of the lumber, and maneuver it into a sling used for hoisting dewatering pumps. Petty Officer 3rd Class Devin Lloyd, and aviation maintenance technician, hoisted the mooring aboard the aircraft and then hoisted Moore back to the aircraft while pilots, Lt. Ray Slapkunas and Lt. Vincent Jansen, hovered the aircraft over the beach.

“It was easy and only took about 10 minutes,” said Moore. “It weighed about 240 pounds. I knew we might not be able to land, so that’s why I brought along the sling. It worked well to get the mooring aboard safely.”

The mooring is one of 10 located throughout Cook Inlet used to monitor the presence of beluga whales year-round. Each mooring has two acoustic instruments, an Ecological Acoustic Recorder (EAR) that records sounds at lower frequencies, including those of belugas, and a C-POD that recognizes and tallies the belugas’ higher frequency echolocation clicks in the vicinity of the mooring. Biologists from ADF&G deploy the moorings in the fall and retrieve them in the spring, then re-deploy them for the summer.

“This isn’t the first mooring we’ve lost and someone found later, but this is the farthest one has travelled,” said Bob Small, wildlife scientist and marine mammal coordinator with the ADF&G in Juneau, who manages the beluga acoustic research project. “This is the third year we’ve used these devices. They operate 24/7, 365 days a year and are much less expensive, and safer, than flying planes to locate and count the whales.”

According to Van Daele and Small the mooring will be evaluated and any repairs needed will be made before it is returned to service. It is unclear exactly why the mooring became free. It’s possible the acoustic release was triggered accidentally or it may have been released in a previous season and failed to come to the surface for retrieval.

“We won’t know until we open it up and look at the serial number, but we think it is a mooring from Knik Arm in Cook Inlet, either one that we released but failed to surface perhaps because it was trapped in the shifting mud and glacial silt, or a different mooring that perhaps was ripped up by the ice sometime this winter” said Small. “Cook Inlet is an extremely difficult environment to work in.”

The Coast Guard and ADF&G collaborate frequently to enforce state fisheries, prepare and respond to pollution incidents and conduct scientific research and support. In the last decade the Coast Guard in Kodiak has educated children attending the department’s annual salmon camp and helped biologists stock difficult to reach local lakes with rainbow trout fry on multiple occasions.

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