On a sunny day in mid-September, 2018, a group of whale watchers is gathered near the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, on the shore of Cook Inlet. These wildlife viewers are organized - they're participating in Belugas Count, an annual effort to document the white whales in the silty waters of Cook Inlet.
Biologists estimate that there are about 330 belugas in the inlet, down from more than 1,000 in the 1970s. The federal government listed Cook Inlet beluga whales as an endangered species in 2008. The state of Alaska and the federal government have a beluga recovery team working to monitor and study the Cook Inlet belugas. Biologists think hunting originally caused the decline. But even though hunting has stopped, the population hasn't recovered, and scientists want to know why - a lack of food, the presence of contaminants, or noise pollution are all factors being considered. For the 2018 Belugas count event, 18 viewing stations were set up across Cook Inlet. About 2,000 people showed up to count belugas. In addition to shore-based volunteer beluga watchers, oil company workers looked for whales from their platforms in Cook Inlet. About 100 beluga whales were spotted by whale watchers in the 2018 Belugas Count event.