Waving goodbye to the 2018 whale watching season!
The past 2.5 months held the best whale encounters to date. We saw a total of 5 different resident killer whale pods in Kachemak Bay and I was able to collect a ton of important data. Now it is time for me to finish my last year of undergrad; by this time in May, I will have my degree, and will be able to officially call myself a marine biologist.
Here’s to a great winter!
AX27 pod porpoising towards the Kenai Mountains in Kachemak Bay, Alaska.
AP3 and her calf, just about to break the surface on 7/27/18.
Killer whales are making headlines these days. J35 Tahlequah has captured the hearts of people all around the world in her “tour of grief” as she carries her dead baby into a 10th day.
These animals are incredible. I do not have words to adequately describe them. I have had many encounters with other whale species, such as humpbacks, but nothing is quite like killer whale encounters.
When they look at you, you feel the presence of another soul. I am a biologist by training; we are often taught not to anthropomorphize animals. But with orcas, the lines get blurred. If you speak to any scientist who has spent any time with them, they will say the same. There’s somebody behind those eyes looking back at you. A thinking, feeling being with emotional and social complexity we haven’t even begun to thoroughly understand.
Every moment I spend with killer whales, I learn something new, both about them as a species and about our species as well. We may live in radically different environments, but we are not so different at heart.
I hope Tahlequah has inspired people to care and conserve these extraordinary animals. I know they inspire me every time I am lucky enough to see them.
Baby orca flukes! In the first photo, you can actually see the blood vessels that supply the flukes with oxygen.
Killer whale calves have an orange/yellow color for the first few years of life. It eventually fades to the adult white coloration after about 3-4 years. There are several thoughts as to why this occurs; the leading hypothesis is that killer whale calves are actually jaundice at birth as their livers work overtime to process old red blood cells. Another possible explanation is that their skin may be stained by amniotic fluid. Despite this being a common phenomenon seen across all killer whale populations, it is actually relatively understudied and we don’t know the exact cause at this time.
A male killer whale’s dorsal fin can reach heights of 6 feet! Here’s AX86 cruising towards our vessel right before he dove below us (engines in neutral, of course!)
Check out that sweet face. This is AD34 Nanwalek’s newest calf, just a couple months old. To my knowledge, this is the first documentation of this individual. Following the alpha-numeric system, this calf will probably be called AD55 (though we will have to await confirmation from the North Gulf Oceanic Society!)
She’s very spunky and rambunctious. Here she is spyhopping next to her 22 year old uncle, AD27 Angiak.
I love “meeting” new whales! These are siblings from the AX81 matriline, AX117 and AX88. They are from AX27 pod, a pod that spends much time out near Kodiak and occasionally Kenai Fjords National Park. They make occasional jaunts in Kachemak Bay, usually meeting up with AP pod. They were traveling with AP pod during this encounter on 7/16/18.
Introducing: AP3’s latest calf!
AP pod was first identified as a pod in 2012. At the time, researchers didn’t know family relationships among the whales due to lack of sightings. However, I have been fortunate to have dozens of encounters with this pod since last summer and believe I have worked out some of the relationships (relationships between adult whales are hard to be certain of and we’ll never know with certainty without DNA tests).
Mother-calf pairs are the easiest relationships to tease out. AP3’s calf has a notch in its fin, making it easy to pick out from the other young animals in the group. It is probably around 3-4 years old based on overall size and coloration (note that it still retains some orange coloration that is typical of very young calves).
6-foot swells make for a rough boat ride, but for some fun orca action! AP12 and AP3 (perhaps her mother?) were doing some surfing on 7/16/18 in Kachemak Bay, Alaska.