Category: cetacean

Happy Father’s Day! While its quite diff…

Happy Father’s Day! While its quite difficult to know Dad’s in the cetacean world, Migaloo is thought to have sired at least two offspring. A genetic sample is needed to confirm this, as well as all paternity in the whale world!
Hope the human Dad’s out there have a great day!
PC: CraigParryPhotography
#whaletales #fathersday #migaloo #fathersday2018 #humpback #albino #whales #whalesofinstagram #whalesareawesome #whalewatching #getonaboat #happyfathersday #cetacean

Happy Father’s Day! While its quite diff…

Happy Father’s Day! While its quite difficult to know Dad’s in the cetacean world, Migaloo is thought to have sired at least two offspring. A genetic sample is needed to confirm this, as well as all paternity in the whale world!
Hope the human Dad’s out there have a great day!
PC: CraigParryPhotography
#whaletales #fathersday #migaloo #fathersday2018 #humpback #albino #whales #whalesofinstagram #whalesareawesome #whalewatching #getonaboat #happyfathersday #cetacean

Happy Father’s Day! While its quite diff…

Happy Father’s Day! While its quite difficult to know Dad’s in the cetacean world, Migaloo is thought to have sired at least two offspring. A genetic sample is needed to confirm this, as well as all paternity in the whale world!
Hope the human Dad’s out there have a great day!
PC: CraigParryPhotography
#whaletales #fathersday #migaloo #fathersday2018 #humpback #albino #whales #whalesofinstagram #whalesareawesome #whalewatching #getonaboat #happyfathersday #cetacean

seatrench: The Sperm Whale is the largest too…

seatrench:

The Sperm Whale is the largest toothed predator.  They are one of the three species in the Sperm Whale family,  along with the Dwarf Sperm Whale and the Pygmy Sperm Whale.  Adult Sperm Whales can reach up to 12m in length,  with the head making up about a third of the body.  The Sperm Whales blow is pointed forward and to the left,  giving a distinctive spout.

(source)

Hey Storytellers! Did you know that we take #…

Hey Storytellers! Did you know that we take #whaletales about any species? Being from Vancouver BC we are lucky enough to hear many many stories about the cetaceans in the Salish Sea but we have stories about Beaked Whales, Right Whales and even Blue Whales! Whatever #cetacean you saw, whenever or wherever you saw it, we would love to hear your whale tale!
Photo by @grakav
#whales #dolphins #porpoises #storytelling #sharingiscaring #photography #whalewatching #cetaceans #getonaboat #getoutside #orca #whalesareawesome #dolphinsrareawesome #duskydolphins #porpoiseareawesome

252mya: Pakicetus sp. Artwork by Lucas Lima It…

252mya:

Pakicetus sp.

Artwork by Lucas Lima

It lived roughly 50 million years ago and is widely regarded as the earliest known whale. With its four long legs, it was more similar in appearance to its even-toed ungulate relatives, like pigs and the hippopotamus.

252MYA creates custom-made artwork for private collections and editorial, scientific, or educational project.

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/

Resident Killer Whales: The Ocean’s Most Dedic…

Resident Killer Whales: The Ocean’s Most Dedicated Mother

On Mother’s Day, many of us take the time to honor our mothers and all of the time, energy, effort, and love that has gone into raising their children. 

For resident killer whales, an unnamed subspecies of killer whale found only in the North Pacific, motherly love transcends all other boundaries found in the animal kingdom. In resident killer whale society, a female’s offspring never leave her side. 

This phenomenon, known as natal philopatry, is seen in many species, but killer whales take it to a whole new level. Both female AND male offspring stay with their mother for their entire lives. Natal philopatry of both sexes is very rare in mammals, being seen only in two bat species, pilot whales, and of course, resident killer whales. [1]

Male resident killer whales in particular are true “mama’s boys.’ While mature female killer whales will retain some degree of independence from their mothers, males are extremely dependent on their mothers. In fact, a male resident killer whale is 3.1 times more likely to die in the year following the death of his mother. For males over the age of 30, the risk of death increases over 8 times after the death of their mothers. This may be because older mothers often provision their adult male offspring. Without mom around to help feed him, a male may have more difficulty surviving. For males, having mom around also means they have higher reproductive success. [1] [2]

Alaskan resident male AP10 and his probable mother, AP2. 

Killer whale moms are so important that they are one of only a few species to display reproductive senescence, also known as menopause. In most animal species, a female continues to reproduce for her entire life. In killer whales, females generally stop reproducing around 40 years of age, but can easily live 30-40 years more after reproduction ceases. One main hypothesis that explains this curious aspect of killer whale biology is that elderly female killer whales are repositories of information that aid in group survival. These “grandma” killer whales are the leaders of pod movement during foraging, and their leadership is especially important in years when salmon––resident killer whales’ main prey source––is low. [3]

Moms are important to us all, but for killer whales, a mother is the ultimate key to survival. Without such dedicated mothers, killer whale society as we know it would likely be radically different. 

Happy Mother’s Day to all mothers out there, especially the ones of the flippered variety.

For further reading, please refer to the sources under the cut.

1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0003347216000737

2. http://science.sciencemag.org/content/337/6100/1313

3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25754636

Hearing reports of both humpbacks and killer w…

Hearing reports of both humpbacks and killer whales out in Kachemak Bay right now…the whale watching season kicks off on June 2nd, just a couple more weeks to go!

This is a shot of male AX89 from July 2017.

Whale Watching: Good or Bad?

Whale Watching: Good or Bad?

Whale watching is a worldwide industry worth more than $2 billion. Seeing a whale in the wild is a bucket list item for countless people all over the globe.

But are you actively harming whales when you go on a whale watching trip?

Whale watching is a hot topic, particularly in the debate over keeping cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in human care. Avid proponents of cetacean captivity often vilify the practice of whale watching, claiming it harms cetaceans and is unsustainable, while extreme anti-captivity activists typically paint whale watching as a harmless activity that does not impact wildlife. The reality is that the truth lies somewhere in between these two extreme views.

Whale watching is a multi-faceted issue that depends on many factors, such as region, species, and even the individual population. Whale watching can be done from boats, kayaks, paddle boards, and even while snorkeling or diving. Each type of whale watching has its benefits and its drawbacks. When is whale watching harmful, and when is it benign? Are there any benefits? Many biologists have attempted to answer these questions by doing studies on whale watching all around the world. Let’s examine this issue in more detail below.

Negative Aspects of Whale Watching

Though we might like to think that whales and dolphins enjoy being around us as much as we enjoy being around them, it’s usually not the case. Vessel traffic, including that from whale watching boats, can put stress on the animals. Here are some examples of when whale watching can have negative impacts on the animals:

  •  Minke whales in Iceland have been documented reacting to approaching whale watching as if they were predators, and whale watching in this region appears to disrupt normal feeding behavior. [X]
  • Hawaiian spinner dolphins rest during the day and are often disturbed during prime sleeping hours by dolphin watching vessels and snorkelers [X] 
  • Whale watching vessels in Panama directly killed at least 10 cetaceans in 2012 and 2013 [X]

These are just a few examples. Other studies document whale watching’s negative impacts on the the St. Lawrence belugas, killer whales in Norway, Irrawaddy dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins in New Zealand. Whale watching can change the activity budgets of animals, increase their respiration rates, cause avoidance behaviors, alter feeding patterns, and even change vocalizations. In more extreme cases, animals can be killed during whale watching trips by vessel strikes. 

Benefits of Whale Watching

Not all whale watching is doom and gloom, however. There are plenty of reputable companies and programs that responsibly view wild cetaceans, minimize their impact, and contribute to education, conservation, and meaningful research. When whale watching is conducted properly, there appears to be little impact on the animals.

One endangered population of killer whales, the southern resident killer whales, is subjected to high amounts of whale watching. Whale watching and its impacts on this imperiled population have been studied extensively and is greatly debated among whale advocates, whale watching companies, and scientists in this region. One particular study showed that whale watching does not actually have as much of an impact as other stressors, such as lack of prey. The biologists measured stress hormones in the whales and found that concentrations of stress hormones were lowest during the highest levels of vessel traffic, and this coincided with peak salmon availability [X]. This indicates when the whales have access to adequate prey, whale watching and other forms of vessel traffic do not have as much of a negative impact on them. That is not to say that whale watching doesn’t affect them at all: other studies have documented changes in behavior, but it’s likely not as negative as many people make it out to be. 

What benefits does whale watching provide? Eric Hoyt provides a list of benefits in his paper “Sustainable ecotourism on Atlantic islands, with special reference to whale watching, marine protected areas and sanctuaries for cetaceans”

  • Recreation
  • Scientific 
  • Education
  • Financial 
  • Cultural 
  • Heritage
  • Social 
  • Aesthetic 
  • Spiritual
  • Psychological 
  • Political 
  • Remote viewing
  • Environmental quality value 
  • Ecological function value

Choosing a Responsible Whale Watching Company

We now know that whale watching can be harmful if not done right. How can you choose a company that will respect the animals and minimize your impact? In some regions, there are special voluntary programs and organizations that companies can become part of that add an extra layer of protection to the animals being observed. 

In the United States, the NOAA sponsored program Whale SENSE provides extra training for whale watching companies to ensure they are conducting their whale watches in the safest and most responsible way possible. Whale SENSE certified companies can be found in Alaska and in New England. 

The Pacific Whale Watch Association is a group of whale watching companies in Washington State and British Columbia that have implemented even further regulations (more than what federal law requires) upon themselves in order to reduce their impact on the animals they view. 

So far, such programs are mainly restricted to the US and Canada. 

Conclusions

The pros and cons of whale watching are nicely summarized in the book “Ecotourism’s Promise and Peril: A Biological Evaluation” and the authors come to the conclusion that: 

“Marine mammals are charismatic animals, and many of them represent top predators and iconic species often referred to as keystone and umbrella species. They are keystone because their disappearance may lead to the loss of other species, and umbrella because conservation actions that mitigate threats to them are expected to improve the protection of other organisms and the ecosystem itself. In many areas around the world, the importance of these animals as keystone and umbrella species is being increasingly recognized and, consequently, so is the need to protect this captivating megafauna. Marine mammal-based tourism, if conducted properly and on a sustainable basis, is a “benign” industry. Ecotourism done right cannot only work, but it can work well. Marine mammals’ welfare should, however, remain the main objective of this industry because, without these animals, there will be no ecotourism at all.”