Category: biology

One of the most exciting aspects of this season was the discovery of humpback whale calves in Kachemak Bay. No humpback calves were seen in 2017 or 2018, so to find two separate calves in 2019 was quite special. 

Pictured above is one of those calves: Y221 Krakatoa. Krakatoa’s mother is Y170 Pompeii, who was named after the distinct scalloping on the edge of her flukes that are reminiscent of volcanic peaks. Krakatoa was given her name to keep on theme with her mother’s name. And yes, it is a ‘she!’ During one of our encounters, Krakatoa started to inverse tail lob and exposed the area around her genital slit and I was able to capture a photo that shows the presence of a hemispherical lobe. The hemispherical lobe is a round, grapefruit sized mass located between the genital slit and anus of female humpbacks. Its function is currently not known but it is a helpful tool when attempting to determine the sex of individual humpbacks (which is actually quite difficult!). 

Did you know that scientists use whales earwax to learn about their lives, migrations, diets, potential toxins and more!⁠
#whaletales⁠
#Repost @underdonecomics with @get_repost⁠
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I used to have this theory that if when you smell your earwax, you’re smelling lost memories. Whelp, I’d been reading about whale earwax recently, and realized this is kind of, sort of true.⁠
Scientists have been collecting whale earwax since 1950s (from whaling stations, while whaling was legal, now they get it when they can from accidental deaths). For a long time, people have been able estimate the age of a whale based on the banding of colors in its earwax (for instance, darker while it was fasting during a yearly migration and lighter while it would eat—depending on the species).⁠
Nowadays, scientists can take slices of a whale’s earwax and figure out what was going on with their lives at certain times, like when they were most stressed, eating toxins, hormonal, et cetera. It’s like detective work!⁠
🕵️‍♀️🕵️‍♀️🕵️‍♀️🕵️‍♀️🕵️‍♀️🕵️‍♀️⁠
🐋🐋🐋🐋🐋🐋⁠
#whale #whalewatching #earwax #biology #science #underwater #conservation #environment #detectivestory #mystery #cetaceans #humpback #bluewhale #ocean #beach #scuba #marinelife #marinebiology #whales #history #naturalhistory #nature ⁠
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On June 2nd, I had my very first encounter with Gulf of Alaska transient killer whales! This population of transients is not well known and many aspects of their lives are shrouded in mystery. We know they prefer Steller sea lions as a main source of prey and tagging studies show they will range as far as 60 miles offshore from Kodiak to Prince William Sound, and on rare occasions, Southeast Alaska and even British Columbia.

I recorded 7 of these transients, including: AT131 (the male), AT163, AT132, AT186, and AT193. They were foraging just off the beach near Land’s End Resort on the Homer Spit.

To the untrained eye, the differences between residents and transients are subtle. However, there are a few traits you can look at to tell if the whales you saw are residents or transients! A sloping eye patch is a common feature of transients, while the eye patches of residents tend to be more straight across. The saddle patches of transients tend to be very wide and broad—when you draw an imaginary line down from the dorsal fin, the saddle will almost always extend far past that midline, whereas a resident’s saddle patch will only peek over the midline.

Births are exciting. The arrival of a newborn into a family is something to celebrate, both in human and killer whale society.

The vocal behavior of resident killer whales undergoes a significant change in the days immediately proceeding the birth of a new calf. Each family group has its own unique calls that act as a “family badge” of sorts. When a calf is born, the whales increase the use of these calls after birth for up to two weeks. There are often increased rates of excitement calls as well.

Killer whale calves are not much different than toddlers —they often wander away from their mothers and many have strikingly independent personalities. It may be crucial for a newborn to quickly learn the family calls in order to recognize family members and maintain contact when they go a little too far astray. It is also vital for later in life as they will stay with their family members for their entire life.

This is a 2017 photo of AX87 and a new calf, probably born in 2016.

An AP pod female coming back down from an impressively high breach. She was doing what is called “popcorn” or “popcorning” by some whale researchers—multiple successive breaches in a very short period of time!

At first glance, this photo seems alarming—AP12’s ribs are prominent, suggesting she may be ill or not getting enough to eat.

HOWEVER!

This is a perfect example of how a single photo taken at a strange angle can make healthy killer whales look emaciated! In reality, AP12 is a chunky, rotund whale. After I took this photo, I watched her cavort around with her family, with no ribs visible whatsoever. Evaluating a killer whale’s body condition can be tricky and conclusions should never be made based off one photo taken at a weird angle like this one!

Long-term field studies of resident killer whales have resulted in a bit of a unique situation in the world of population biology: every single individual is known and documented. This holds true for the northern and southern resident killer whale populations.

In Alaska, however, there are still occasional undocumented pods of killer whales that pop up. This male belongs to one of those “mystery” pods. I have had only a handful encounters with this male and his equally unfamiliar companions. Curiously, I have only seen them in the company of more well known pods, such as AX27 pod, AP pod, and AS30 pod, never by themselves. It seems that even though they are strangers to us, they are old friends to the documented pods! I love a little bit of mystery and the fleeting glimpses I’ve had of this male and his family have left me wanting to know more about their pod structure and movements.

One of the more unique perspectives I’ve been able to capture. Love those baby killer whale snouts! This is AP3’s most recent calf, probably around 4 years old now.

Did you know that in 1983, SeaWorld attempted to capture 100 of Alaska’s killer whales? SeaWorld had been barred from capturing in Washington and British Columbia, so they looked farther north to acquire more killer whales for their parks. They had received a permit from NMFS to temporarily capture 100 whales in Alaskan waters to obtain blood samples, extract teeth, and take weight/length measurements. While 90 whales would be released, 10 would be kept and shipped off to their parks in California, Florida, and at the time, Ohio.

Naturally, this did not sit well with Alaskans. The proposed area of the captures, Prince William Sound, is an important region for the local resident killer whales and people feared captures could deplete the population and cause remaining whales to become scared of humans. The Tlingit people, who revere killer whales, branded the captures and cruel and exploitative. Some fishermen and environmentalists threatened to interfere with any of SeaWorld’s capture operations. Coincidentally, SeaWorld failed to file an environmental impact statement prior to issuance of their permit—several groups, including the Sierra Club, challenged the permit in court on this basis. Their permit was voided by a federal judge in 1985 and SeaWorld was not allowed to conduct the proposed captures.

Knowing that the whales I study and love could have been subjected to cruel procedures or confined to tanks to splash tourists in Florida sends a shiver up my spine. The removal of even one female whale would have had profound impacts on the pods—a productive female can leave as many as 15 descendants over 3 generations. Had even a few of these whales been captured, I might not have had the privilege to view the whales I see today! I am extremely grateful Alaskans stood up to SeaWorld and prevented them from disrupting Alaska’s wild whale populations.