Category: Alaska

AP9 on 6/18/18 near Seldovia, Alaska. He’s a y…

AP9 on 6/18/18 near Seldovia, Alaska. He’s a young male; I would estimate him to be in his late teens or early 20s.

AP pod has returned to Kachemak Bay! I was s…

AP pod has returned to Kachemak Bay!

I was so thrilled to spot a few members of this resident pod flitting around the bay this afternoon (6/18/18). They were spread out, likely searching for salmon along the shoreline. AP pod was seen extensively last summer, but hadn’t been seen for many years prior. They are truly a mysterious pod!

Here is adult male AP9 making a few close passes by our vessel, the M/V Discovery.

Northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) i…

Northern sea otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni) in Seldovia, Alaska. 

Sea otters: cute and cuddly, yet surprisingly …

Sea otters: cute and cuddly, yet surprisingly violent.

Sea otter mating behavior was on full display this afternoon in Seldovia’s harbor.

Male otters are aggressive when it comes to mating. He grips the female tightly with his arms and bites down hard on her nose, ensuring she can’t escape. It’s a bloody affair and females are usually left scarred; sometimes the wounds they receive can be fatal, and there is a very real risk of drowning.

This violent mating behavior may have an important function. Sea otters, like other mustelids, are induced ovulators and require vigorous copulation in order for the egg to be released.

Back at work as a marine naturalist in Kachema…

Back at work as a marine naturalist in Kachemak Bay. The humpbacks have not yet arrived, but the sea otters are such a delight it almost makes up for the whales’ absence.

Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) at Potter …

Tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) at Potter Marsh in the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.

Mysterious Strangers: Alaska’s Understudied Ki…

Mysterious Strangers: Alaska’s Understudied Killer Whales

Alaska is vast; the state holds more coastline than the contiguous United States combined. With its short summers, fierce winters, and weather than can change in the blink of an eye, oceanic field research is difficult and often severely limited.

Studies on Alaska’s killer whales began in in the early 80s in the Kenai Fjords and Prince William Sound region in southcentral Alaska. Biologists, such as Craig Matkin and Eva Saulitis, began documenting individual resident and transient pods that traversed the region. After many years of effort, they eventually developed a identification catalog of killer whales ranging from Kodiak Island to Southeast Alaska. In total, they identified over 700 individual resident killer whales and over 100 Gulf of Alaska transient killer whales in these regions. These whales are fairly well-studied and we know much about their distribution, feeding habits, travel patterns, and behavior. 

However, there is another group of killer whales Alaska that is more than double the size of the southern Alaska resident killer whale population. Biologists have estimated that there are over 1,500 resident killer whales alone that live in Western Alaska in the waters of the Bering Sea and off the Aleutian Islands. There are also unique groups of transients who appear to be separated from the Gulf of Alaska transients. Who are these whales? What do they eat? Where do they travel? 

Click below to read more about Alaska’s mysterious killer whales.

We do know some things: resident killer whales in Western Alaska likely depend more on non-salmon prey, such as Atka mackerel. These whales are also known thieves; resident killer whales in the Bering Sea are known to depredate local commercial fishing operations. They are adept and skilled at removing halibut, turbot, and blackcod from longliners (to read more about killer whale depredation in Alaska, check out my article in Orcazine.)

The transients in Western Alaska are big, burly, and frequently take down large baleen whales as prey. In Unimak Pass in the Aleutian Islands, there is a seasonal gathering of transient killer whales that assembles in order to intercept migrating gray whales. 

A subadult male killer whale attacking a gray whale in Western Alaska. Photo by John Durban.

These transients don’t appear to linger around after the gray whale migration. Tagging studies show they disperse into the Bering Sea. Some transients in Western Alaska also appear to focus their energy on fur seal colonies around the Pribilof Islands; these fur seal “specialists” are genetically related to transients found off the coast of Russia. 

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Western Alaska’s transients is their potential range. One tagged transient in the Bering Sea traveled rapidly over 1220 miles towards the central sub-tropical Pacific, roughly halfway to Hawaii. These forays into warmer waters are also evident on their skin. Some transients in Alaska bear the oval scars from cookie-cutter sharks, which are only found in the tropics and subtropics. What are they doing? Where are they going? Are these long-distance trips regular for these animals? What are they eating when they aren’t in Alaska? The answers to these questions is still unknown.

A male transient in the Central Aleutian Islands bearing cookie cutter shark bite scars.  Photo by Dave Ellifrit, NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NMFS
Permit No. 782-1719.

While Western Alaska holds some of the most tantalizing killer whale mysteries, some pods of southern Alaska residents are as equally mystifying. Many resident pods are documented every year and are easy to track and study. Others, however, are evasive and where they go and what they do is unknown. AP pod is a great example of this. This pod of about ~19 individuals was photographed in 2003 and 2012 by biologists. They are so poorly known that for a long time they were placed in a category of whales known as the “gray box” residents, an assemblage of individual whales that were only seen once or twice and pod relations could not be worked out. In 2012 they were placed into their own pod category, but family relationships are still unknown. 

I was fortunate enough to photograph and spend time with AP pod for several weeks in 2017. They appeared one day in Kachemak Bay, Alaska out of the blue and for whatever reason, stuck around for over a month. I documented new calves and I believe I have worked out some family relationships. It may be many more years before AP pod is seen again; we don’t know their range or where they spend most of their time.  

AP pod male AP18 and a female, probably AP7. 

Some resident pods in Alaska are so poorly known that not even established biologists have records of them. Last summer, I photographed a large pod of residents in Kachemak Bay. These whales were distinct and easy to identify. Surely, they would be in the catalogs. Despite weeks of painstakingly analyzing and comparing photographs, I could not find no matches to identified killer whales. I emailed the photos to Alaska’s killer whale biologists and they too could not identify the whales. It is likely they are a newly documented resident pod. 

An adult male from the newly documented resident pod. Note the yellow patches on the saddle patch; these are diatoms, a type of algae that grows in cold waters, indicating this whale may have been in colder, more Arctic waters recently.

However, which population are they from? Western Alaska, or the southern Alaska resident population? Kachemak Bay sits neatly in the middle of southcentral Alaska, nestled between the vast western Alaska regions and the more populated areas of Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska. While there has been no documented movement from Western Alaska killer whales into the region where southern Alaska residents inhabit, I have always had a hunch that Kachemak Bay may be a mixing zone of sorts. Given that these whales were traveling with AX27 pod, a fairly well-known southern Alaska resident pod, they are likely from said population, but I will always wonder. 

There are still so many things to learn about Alaska’s killer whales. With a little luck and more time, we will hopefully unravel some of these mysteries.

References

https://www.orcanetwork.org/Main/PDF/WhalewatcheVol40No12011.pdf

http://aquaticcommons.org/8907/

Killer Whales in Alaska! To read this story (a…

Killer Whales in Alaska! To read this story (and more!), follow the link in our bio.
Photo by Johnathan
#whaletales #killerwhales #orca #2017 #NRKW #alaska #getonaboat #whalewatching #whalesareawesome #storytelling #Photography

Sea Otter Photo-Identification

Sea Otter Photo-Identification

You are probably familiar with the technique of photo-identification when it comes to whales and dolphins (if you are not, read more here!), but did you know the same principle applies to sea otters too?

Biologists can distinguish individual sea otters by photographing their noses. Each nose is shaped differently, and many otters have pink scar tissue. Scarring is especially prolific in females due to the mating bite that males inflict upon females during copulation. However, using photo-ID with sea otters can be difficult due to the fact nose scarring can change from year to year, sometimes resulting in misidentifications. 

The two photos above are of an elderly female otter that we have dubbed “Beatrice.” For the past two years, Beatrice has taken up semi-residence in the Homer Harbor in Homer, Alaska, where she takes advantage of easy meals in the form of crabs and blue mussels. Whenever I’d see an old female otter munching away in the harbor, I suspected I was seeing the same individual each time, but wasn’t able to confirm that until I compared some relatively good quality photos of her nose. In the year between these two photos, she did pick up some additional scarring, but overall her nose looks mostly the same. Hopefully Beatrice will still be there this summer for more comparisons!

Read more about sea otter photo-identification.

Orca depredation in Alaska: a dangerous game o…

Orca depredation in Alaska: a dangerous game of risk and reward – ORCAZINE:

Hey everyone!

The orca-centric magazine Orcazine has published my article on killer whale depredation in Alaska, and it includes a few of my own photos as well! I’m excited that a piece of my writing has been officially published.

Give it a read if you have a chance!