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‘Unusual’ sighting: Beluga whale swims through B.C. waters

A beluga whale has come a long way from home and passed B.C. on its way.
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Beluga hale, unusual in Pacific Northwest, likely traveled thousands of miles south.

A beluga whale is believed to have skirted Vancouver Island's coastline as it swam thousands of kilometres south from Alaska to the waters off Washington state.

According to The National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA), the whale travelled thousands of miles south around Alaska, through the Bering Sea and then south to Puget Sound. 

Scientists have reportedly collected genetic material from the beluga whale back in October when it was first sighted in Puget Sound. That sample leads scientists to believe the whale is from a large population of beluga whales in the Beaufort Sea. 

DNA was extracted from a water sample — also known as eDNA, as it comes from the skin — fecal and other cellular debris. 

“The information that we can obtain from eDNA is more limited than what we can generate from a tissue sample, but can provide insight about where the whale is likely from,” said Kim Parsons, a research scientist at NOAA Fisheries Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

This whale was last sighted on Oct. 20 near Tacoma. NOAA Fisheries says it is "unusual" for beluga whales to be in the pacific northwest. 

"We don't know exactly the route the whale took through the ocean, of course, but it would have had to swim south somewhere off the west coast of North America to reach Puget Sound,” says Michael Milstein, public affairs officer with their West Coast Regional Office.

"So while we do not know how far offshore it might have been, it would have had to pass Vancouver Island at some point.”

Scientists were able to obtain a match of the genetic sequence to other beluga whales from the Beaufort Sea and the high Arctic.

"The Beaufort Sea population was estimated at about 40,000 whales in 1992,” according to a press release by NOAA Fisheries. 

The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network has stated it is prepared to respond if the whale becomes stranded.

Any sightings of the beluga whale should be sent to the Orca Network at (360) 331-3545, and if the animal is stranded, call (866)767-6114.

NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the stewardship of the United States' ocean resources and their habitat.