Robert Kenney, marine scientist emeritus at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, said the small, white toothed whales are typically found in the waters of the Arctic. The closest beluga population to Rhode Island is in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where a relict population became established after the retreat of the glaciers during the last Ice Age.
Kenney, who has studied marine mammals in New England for more than 30 years, said that beluga whales are occasionally known to wander south, with the first one in our region off Orient Point on Long Island in 1942. Annual sightings off New York and New Jersey occurred from 1978 to 1981 and again in 1985 and 1986. In April 2005, one spent time in the Delaware River between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, swimming as far upriver as Trenton. There have also been occasional sightings in Cape Cod Bay, but never before in Rhode Island.
According to Kenney, the first Rhode Island beluga was spotted by a local fisherman in the West Passage of Narragansett Bay on June 15. A beluga was also spotted in the Assonet River in Massachusetts on the same afternoon, which Kenney believes was a different animal. That one apparently remained in the vicinity of Fall River in the Taunton River and Mount Hope Bay for over a week, and it must have navigated through Rhode Island waters to get there. An additional report of a beluga near Gloucester, Mass. suggests that there may be three animals in the region.
Kenney said that the whales do not appear to be unhealthy or in any particular danger. “They’re probably getting healthier food than they would in the St. Lawrence, where most belugas carry very high loads of toxic chemicals from eating contaminated fish,” he said.
Kenney is monitoring the whales in collaboration with the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals, a Quebec-based non-profit that has been studying the St. Lawrence River population of belugas for many years. The researchers are seeking high-quality photos of the local belugas to see if they can match them to known individuals in their photo catalog. Those with photos can send them to email@example.com.