A beluga whale swimming underneath water

A Beluga whale found unusually far south in Puget Sound earlier this month is believed to have come from a pod in the Beaufort Sea. NOAA Fisheries made the announcement this week based on genetic material from the beluga they were able to analyze.

In the first week of October, the Seattle Times reported a single beluga whale had been sighted in multiple places across Puget Sound; something that hasn’t been seen in the area since the 1940s.

NOAA Fisheries says the whale appears to have swum thousands of miles south from Arctic waters in the Beaufort Sea. Scientists do not believe the beluga came from the smaller Cook Inlet population.

NOAA Fisheries did not say what might have caused the beluga to wander so far south on its own. However, beluga whales are known to sometimes roam beyond their normal area in Arctic waters.

Dr. Kim Parsons, a research scientist with NOAA Fisheries, said they used genetic analysis of DNA taken from a water sample in the Puget Sound near where the beluga was located. This material is referred to as environmental DNA.

“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,” Parsons said.

Scientists determined that the DNA sequence from the beluga matches other beluga whales found in the Beaufort Sea and Arctic waters. This population usually migrates between Alaska, Canada and Russia.

The far-flung beluga was last sighted on Oct. 20 near Tacoma, Washington, according to NOAA Fisheries. The West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network will respond if this whale is identified as stranded.

Image at top: A beluga whale from the Beaufort Sea photographed in Puget Sound earlier in October, 2021. (Photo from NOAA Fisheries, World Vets under MMHSRP 18786-05)