The carcass of a young beluga whale has been found by canoeists on the Tanana River about 40 miles southwest of Fairbanks, Alaska -- or nearly 1,000 river miles from the Bering Sea, the closest beluga habitat.
Sylvia Brunner, a marine mammals researcher at the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks, identified the decomposing carcass and oversaw its recovery Wednesday.
What the 8-foot-long whale was doing that far inland in a freshwater river, part of a system that drains much of the vast interior of Alaska, remains a mystery. But Link Olson, a curator of marine mammals at the museum, said he was confident the mammal swam from the ocean.
"What are the alternatives?" he said. Perpetrating a hoax along a remote section of river with a whale carcass was highly unlikely, he said. "If you were ever close to a dead marine mammal, even for a few hours, you would know why no one in their right mind would do that."
The "bloated, black thing on the beach" was about 12 feet from the river's edge, Brunner said.
It could have died in the river last fall and frozen, she said, or it could have entered the river this spring seeking fish.
A fisherman from Nenana, Ed Lord, told Brunner Thursday that he spotted the carcass in early May, four days after ice left the river. He speculated that the whale followed salmon upstream last fall, and when the river froze, it could not surface for air and died. The carcass was near a section of the river that jammed with ice this spring.
Belugas are toothed whales and belong to the same group as sperm whales, killer whales, dolphins and porpoises, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Belugas often feed on fish in estuaries and in the mouths of rivers.
Their most distinctive attribute is their color. They are born dark blue-gray, but turn white at 5 or 6 years old.
Adult males generally reach 11 to 15 feet long and weigh 1,000 to 2,000 pounds. Adult females seldom exceed 12 feet, according to the department.
The carcass was taken to the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks.