Our volunteers are the most important members of our team. Thank you all for taking time out of your life to get out there rain, shine, wind, and snow to monitor for Cook Inlet belugas.
Program Manager and Data Analyst
Michelle Trifari earned a B.S. in marine science from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in 2014. Prior to graduating, her love of whales led her to Juneau, Alaska, in the summer of 2013, where she worked on whale-watching vessels for several seasons. Michelle eventually followed the whales to Hawaii to participate in humpback whale research in their breeding grounds. She also worked throughout the Northeast as a Fisheries Observer and Protected Species Observer on commercial fishing and research vessels, taught marine science to students in South Carolina, and was a fisheries technician for the Sitka Sound Science Center. In 2022, Michelle earned her M.S. in Marine Biology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her work investigated the influence of food web dynamics on mercury concentrations in diet items of endangered Steller sea lions from the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. Following graduation, she became an Alaska Sea Grant State Fellow with NOAA Fisheries, Protected Resources Division (Juneau), where she worked on the management needs of Alaska’s marine mammals and became involved with the Alaska Beluga Whale Monitoring Program.
Founded in 1978, Alaska Wildlife Alliance (AWA) is Alaska’s oldest wildlife advocacy group and is committed to protecting Alaska’s natural wildlife for its intrinsic value, as well as for the benefit of present and future generations. AWA advocates for the ethical and scientifically sound management of Alaska’s ecosystems and works to advance endangered species conservation, healthy human-wildlife coexistence in urban and rural communities, and preserve important wildlife habitat throughout Alaska. AWA co-hosts AKBMP beluga monitoring efforts in the lower Kenai and Kasilof Rivers with Kenai Peninsula College.
Teresa Becher is the Kenai and Kasilof Beluga Monitoring Coordinator for Alaska Wildlife Alliance and a Natural Sciences major at the University of Alaska, Anchorage with a focus on pre-veterinary medicine. She retired from the California Highway Patrol in 2014 after twenty-five years of service as a peace officer and moved to Soldotna Alaska to start a new life adventure. She loves animals and has spent most of her adult life working with dog and cat rescue groups, in addition to caring for her many pets. Teresa has a previous bachelor’s degree in Government but returned to college to pursue a degree in the sciences. In the last year she has been given the opportunity to monitor beluga whales on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers through the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Partnership, AWA and the Kenai Peninsula College and has been the Kenai beluga coordinator since Spring 2019. When she is not monitoring beluga whales or studying, she is hiking with her dogs, exploring Alaska, and working as a volunteer on various research projects related to marine ecology.
Nicole Schmitt is the Executive Director of Alaska Wildlife Alliance. Nicole’s interest in Alaska’s resources began as a teenager, when she worked on the crew of a salmon setnetting operation in Kasilof, Alaska. She then studied geography and international development at the University of Denver in partnership with Peking University in Beijing, splitting her degrees between the United States and China. After completing her research thesis abroad, Nicole returned to the US to work in research and conservation programming for various government agencies and nonprofit organizations—including the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Yosemite National Park, and the Global Greengrants Fund. Nicole was excited to return to Alaska to exercise her skills for Alaska’s wildlife. When she’s not looking for belugas, Nicole can be found biking, running, kayaking, or climbing across Alaska with her dog, Riley.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) is a 501 (c) 3 not for profit organization and wildlife sanctuary dedicated to preserving Alaska’s wildlife through conservation, education, research, and quality animal care. AWCC’s commitment to conservation, research, and education lead us to joining AKBMP in 2021. In additions to partnership with AKBMP, AWCC participates in Cook Inlet beluga whale (CIBW) conservation and community science through Belugas Count!, beluga monitoring field trip opportunities of students, and creating educational opportunities for guests visiting the sanctuary. AWCC is currently working to plan and build a new ocean education center at the Point which will further the reach of educational programs about the endangered CIBW as well as other marine mammals and ecosystems. AWCC hosts The Point, a location on the edge of the sanctuary where the Placer River and Portage Creek meet and let out into Turnagain Arm.
Lily Grbavach is the Director of Education at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC). Her exciting position focuses on educational and interpretive programs as well as research and community science collaborations. Prior to joining the AWCC team in 2019 Lily earned a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and Conservation from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Since then, she has worked in environmental and wildlife education as a frontline interpreter, program manager, and camp director. She enjoys working to develop educational and research partnerships to create opportunities for conservation outreach and is thrilled to be doing so with AKBMP.
The Beluga Whale Alliance (BWA) is a Girdwood-based nonprofit devoted to the local and worldwide conservation of beluga whales and their Arctic and subarctic habitats through outreach, education, community participation, and research. In their home region of Cook Inlet, Alaska, BWA’s current focus is on encouraging the recovery of the critically endangered Cook Inlet beluga whale. In 2018, BWA began collaborating with NOAA Fisheries, the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Photo-ID Project, and the Four Valleys Community School to organize citizen science beluga monitoring at Alaska’s Twentymile River and along the Turnagain Arm. As an AKBMP collaborator, BWA will continue to implement their Cook Inlet Beluga Citizen Science & Interpretation Project in the Upper Inlet and facilitate shore-based beluga monitoring with AKBMP at Ship Creek (co-host with Defenders), Mile Marker 95.3 Pullout, and at the Twentymile River.
Suzanne Steinert, is the Founder & President of Beluga Whale Alliance (BWA), a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that supports the local and global conservation of beluga whales. A Raffi ‘beluga grad,’ she holds a formal graduate degree in Conservation Biology from Miami University’s Global Field Program where she explored community-based strategies to save endangered species and combat the global extinction crisis. Living and working as a naturalist and tour guide alongside Cook Inlet’s critically endangered belugas and recognizing the need for locals to participate in their conservation inspired her to launch BWA in 2017. That year, she also designed and implemented a self-funded project on the Twentymile River engaging community observers in monitoring beluga activity and working with boaters to balance human and beluga use of the river during the busy salmon run. AKBMP is a key component of BWA’s ‘glocal’ work to support the survival of not only our backyard belugas, but the worldwide conservation of this iconic species. In addition to spearheading BWA’s day-to-day operations, you can find her out beluga watching along Turnagain Arm near BWA’s field base, where she’s locally known as ‘the beluga girl.’
Defenders of Wildlife is a national non-profit conservation organization that is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. In Alaska, Defenders is working hard to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, Tongass National Forest, National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and other key ecosystems from the threats posed by climate change, unsustainable development and unsound wildlife and habitat policies and management practices. Cook Inlet belugas have become one of the Defenders’ Alaska team’s priority species.
Ragen Davey is the Marine Representative for Defenders of Wildlife. Ragen earned her undergraduate degree in Chemistry at East Carolina University where she worked on dolphin ID and the effects of marine pollution on seagrass and fish biodiversity along the Greek Island of Samos. She then moved to Fairbanks to pursue an M.S. in Environmental Chemistry where she furthered her understanding of sub-arctic pollution. Her interest in belugas started when she was young but became a passion when living in Girdwood and observing the Cook Inlet belugas. When not monitoring for belugas, Ragen is alpine skiing, trail running, or backpacking across Alaska with her two Alaska huskies, Fynn and Trout.
Kenai Peninsula College (KPC) is a community campus of the University of Alaska Anchorage. KPC undergraduate students have actively participated in beluga monitoring since AKBMP’s first field season in Fall 2019. KPC and Kachemak Bay Campus (KBC) became involved with AKBMP in order to support biology majors, Semester by the Bay students and community members with interests in marine and conservation biology, and to support agencies working tirelessly to better understand CI belugas in order to aid in their conservation and protection. KPC’s Professor Debbie Tobin co-hosts AKBMP beluga monitoring efforts in the lower Kenai and Kasilof Rivers with the Alaska Wildlife Alliance.
Dr. Debbie Boege Tobin, a professor at the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College – University of Alaska Anchorage since 2006 and coordinator of the Semester by the Bay program, has been working with and educating others about belugas on/off for over 25 years. After her Masters, she worked at the Shedd Aquarium where she assisted with captive beluga acoustics. Shortly after arriving in Homer, Alaska she and her students have been involved with harbor porpoise, and humpback, killer, gray and beluga whale photo ID projects, occasional acoustic studies, citizen science monitoring and the local marine mammal stranding network.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is responsible for the conservation, protection, and recovery of endangered and threatened marine species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), including the Cook Inlet beluga whale. NMFS provides the AKBMP with financial and logistical support, informs the development of our scientific monitoring protocols, and integrates the data we collect during shore-based monitoring efforts into their Cook Inlet Beluga Opportunistic Sightings Database and Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Ecosystem Portal managed by the Alaska Ocean Observing System (AAOS).
Jill Seymour is the NOAA Fisheries Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Recovery Coordinator and a Marine Mammal Specialist for the Alaska Region. Prior to joining NOAA in 2021, she worked at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and in private consulting. She received her doctorate in Marine Biology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 2014, where her research focused on Pacific walruses, zoonotic disease transmission, and climatic influences on foraging ecology. She also holds a B.A. in Biology and in Electronic and Computer Music Composition and Technology from Mills College.
Verena Gill is the Supervisory Biologist for one of the marine mammal conservation branches in NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources in Alaska. She graduated with a Masters of Science focusing on marine biology from the University of Alaska in 1999. Before joining NOAA Fisheries in 2016, she worked at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Marine Mammals Management, and the U. S. Geological Survey – Alaska Science Center. Her hobbies are trail running, skate and downhill skiing, exploring ridgelines, and fat tire biking. To find out more about her work go to her ResearchGate website.
Brianna is our first youth ambassador who joined us during our fall 2021 season. She attends high school in the Anchorage School District and aspires to be a wildlife biologist. Both of her parents are biologists in Alaska so from an early age, she has experienced all that offers. She attended her first scientific conference while learning to walk, watched sea otter necropsies as a toddler and helped with whale stranding responses in elementary school. She enjoys traveling to see new ecosystems and has spent time in the Galapagos, the Amazon basin & Europe. She spends her free time with her team Nordic skiing and cross-country running. If you are a student or teacher that wishes to work with Brianna to monitor with AKBMP, set up a school program, or have her visit your school to talk about belugas, please get in touch with email@example.com.
NOAA AKBMP Intern
Jeremy Thatcher is an intern with NOAA Fisheries in Anchorage. He is finishing his B.S. in Environmental Studies, with a concentration in ocean life, from the University of Southern California and aspires to pursue a master’s in the near future. While working with NOAA Fisheries, Jeremy will assist in conservation and restoration efforts across Alaska, including working with the Protected Resources Division and our program as a beluga monitor. Although based in Anchorage, he plans to visit all monitoring sites throughout the spring and fall of 2023 monitoring seasons. He is excited to use this opportunity to assist in data collection and as a tool to explore his new home of Alaska. When not monitoring for belugas, he enjoys backpacking, surfing, and alpine skiing, and recently, he has started cross-country skiing.
Ongoing since 2005, the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Photo-ID Project conducts boat-based and shore-based beluga surveys in Upper and Middle Cook Inlet. Using the images they capture, Photo-ID Project researchers identify individual belugas by their natural markings and compile histories of known individuals to enhance our understanding of beluga distribution, habitat use, social structure, and reproduction in Cook Inlet. We share the observational data and photographs collected by AKBMP volunteers with the Cook Inlet Beluga Whale Photo-ID Project for inclusion in their Cook Inlet Beluga Sightings Mapper and beluga image catalogue. If you would like to photograph the belugas you observe during AKBMP monitoring sessions and submit them to the Photo-ID Project, please review their Image Capture Guidelines.
Become a Partner
If you or your organization is interested in collaborating with us to facilitate citizen science beluga monitoring activities in Cook Inlet, please contact the AKBMP Coordinator.
Past team members
Madison Kosma took over as the coordinator in 2019 and ran the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Program until 2023.
Kim Ovitz spearheaded the creation and launch of the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Partnership in 2019 and was the coordinator for 2019.