BEULAH BAY — As thousands of North Dakotans quarantine during the state’s COVID-19 crisis, a welcome sight has returned to the bays of Lake Sakakawea: the Humpback Whale.
The majestic mammals were once thought to be extinct from North Dakota’s waters, however, a pair of humpbacks were spotted near Beaulah Bay on Lake Sakakawea over the weekend.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department says the whales were a welcome sight, but caution the public to keep their distance from the rare mammals.
“Lake Sakakawea, which is part of the Missouri River, feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. During the cold, winter and early spring months, humpbacks often gather in the warmer waters of the gulf to mate and nurse their calves,” says ND Game and Fish Director of Salt Water Species Richard Seaman. “As the temperatures rise, oftentimes, humpbacks will migrate into freshwater to seek food. The walleye is highly prized among Humpbacks and if hungry enough, the whales will swim thousands of miles to seek out the elusive fish. However, the Humpback Whale has not been spotted in North Dakota for many decades. They were first observed in 1918 during the Spanish-Flu epidemic and over time, were hunted to near extinction as settlers used their blubber to create soap products, including the Mr. Bubble brand of products. We think this is a perfect time for North Dakotans to take a road trip to the lake and bring their binoculars, but we’re also cautioning boaters to keep their distance from the whales.”
As residents are forced to remain indoors, oil drilling numbers decline, and Governor Burgum revokes fishing tournament permits, Lake Sakakawea is quickly transforming into a refuge for the Humpback. However, some unwelcome species could also frequent the waters of Sakakawea, which has the North Dakota Game and Fish Department nervous.
“We’ve been in talks with other states who border the Missouri River and we’re hearing reports that bull sharks and gators are also migrating through the river, and so we may be forced to issue some sort of advisory for swimmers should either species emerge in North Dakota,” says Seaman. “As more and more folks stay home and our waters stay empty, we’re providing the perfect habitat for these creatures. Our way of life has changed whether we want to admit it or not, and North Dakotans need to assume the sharks and gators are already here.”
In the early frontier days of North Dakota, alligators were known to frequent the shores of Lake Sakakawea. Known as “Sakakawea Snappers”, the gators could reach 16-feet in length. Rumors of snapper sightings have circulated the state for years, with some Garrison Dam divers reporting they observed the creatures near the bottom of Lake Sakakawea, however, the State Game and Fish Department has been unable to verify the claims.
Still, Governor Burgum says he and the First Lady were “overjoyed” when they were informed the whales had returned to North Dakota. Burgum says he considering an Executive Order to mandate the public maintain six-feet of distance from the whales to ensure the mammals’ safety.
“I was delighted to hear the news that the mighty Humpback has returned to North Dakota and I’d like to express my gratitude to the entire pod of whales for returning to Lake Sakakawea, which for years, has been a source of refuge on the prairie,” said Burgum. “However, we need to ensure that everyone is practicing social distancing to slow the spread, and given that a pair of tigers became infected with COVID-19 in New York, I’m looking at signing an executive order that will mandate North Dakotans maintain six feet between themselves and the whales to prevent further community spread of coronavirus. My office is also looking at some additional ammendments that will mandate North Dakotans maintain six feet of social distancing between bison, the NDSU Bison Mascot, Thundar, as well as the UND Fighting Hawk. I’m not sure what the penalty under law is for non-compliance with my executive orders, but I’m sure Jack from the Bismarck Tribune or radio legend Dave Thompson from Prairie Public could look it up for us.”
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