Category: whale

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Something fun: which cetacean has the prettiest flukes, in your opinion?

I’m quite partial to killer whales, myself!

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AP18 is the biggest and oldest bull in his pod.

Though he will not sire any calves within his own pod, his sheer size and old age means he (barring any reproductive problems) has likely sired many calves in other pods. For reasons we still don’t totally understand, female killer whales prefer to mate with with old, large bulls. There is likely some aspect of mate choice but recent evidence of infanticide in other killer whale populations suggests that females may not have much say in some instances.

Due to the fact they spend nearly their entire lives underwater, we know virtually nothing about the reproductive behaviors and courtship of killer whales!

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Alaska is vast and fieldwork with marine mammals is often fraught with difficultly. It can be particularly challenging to study the resident killer whales here.

Despite their name, many pods do not stick to one area. Each pod has its own range and some are larger than others. When researching other resident killer whale populations, such as the southern residents, it’s possible to document every individual in the population on a yearly basis. This is not possible in Alaska! Pods go years without being seen and new pods are constantly being discovered.

Take AX27 pod for example. Their section of the southern Alaska resident photo-identification catalog has not been updated in eight years! The main killer whale biologists in Alaska conduct fieldwork in the Kenai Fjords and Prince William Sound. AX27 pod is mainly found around Kodiak, Cook Inlet, and Kachemak Bay and only makes a rare trip to the main study regions. As a result, they have not been officially censused in nearly a decade.

Luckily for me, though, I see them on a regular basis during the summer. In August we found part of AX27 pod and I found that AX84 (I believe) has a calf that has not been documented before! She has one other offspring, AX114, who has sprouted and is becoming a mature bull.

Working in Kachemak Bay, I can help document pods that are not often seen by the biologists at the North Gulf Oceanic Society. Every encounter yields new information about pod structure and behavior. I feel very lucky to be able to work with these animals and learn something new every time I see them!

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Sometimes photo-ID is hard, even when you know what pod the whale belongs to.

AP pod’s ID photos were taken 6 years ago. The calves at the time were documented but the saddle patches of young killer whales are often faint and difficult to make out. Those same calves are now juveniles and are much more distinct, but unfortunately matching tbem to their calf ID photos is proving to be a challenge.

Photos from the North Gulf Oceanic Society.

I believe this is AP15 based on the dorsal fin curvature, but I am not 100% sure!

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Just half a second before AP3’s calf exploded out of the water next to her!

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Here’s another adult male killer whale that has proven difficult to identify.

I’ve only seen him on one occasion—during the July superpod with AP pod, AS30 pod, and the unidentified pod. He does not belong to AP pod or AS30 pod; you might conclude he must belong to the unidentified pod, but we have to be careful when assigning pod designations. It often takes multiple sightings of a group to be able to determine who is in the pod and who is not (a pod is loosely defined as individuals who spend more than 50% of their time with each other).

When I refer to the “unidentified pod,” I am referring to the assemblage of whales that have been identified as not belonging to any known pod of southern Alaska residents. However, I’ve only actually seen a couple of said whales on repeated occasions, and even then they are not always with the same whales all the time.

It is always my hope that this male and all of the other unidentified whales will show up again, but the reality in Alaska is that groups can go several years without being seen, particularly those that spend time in the western Gulf of Alaska where field studies are not regularly conducted. These whales seem to have avoided detection up until 2017/2018! (However, it’s possible they were sighted by biologists in the past and their photos are sitting in a dusty box or old hard drive somewhere—but so far the people who keep track of these whales haven’t identified them either).

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AP19 surfacing next to his or her mother, AP4. In the background are members of the unknown pod we have observed on several occasions in Kachemak Bay.

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Killer whale superpods are relatively rare (i.e. only happen a few times a year) but they are astounding to witness. They are essentially a community gathering, a celebration of sorts. There is a huge amount of social activity that goes in a superpod, including mating.

In July, we got to see a superpod in Kachemak Bay comprised of AP pod, AS30 pod, and a pod that still has yet to be cataloged. One of the coolest things I saw was that the calves of the pods split off from their families and joined up to make their own “mini pods.” They rolled around and played with one another while their parents socialized with adult whales from other pods.

In this photo, we can see a calf from AS30 pod (left) surfacing next to AP3’s calf, which still has yet to be given an alphanumeric name.

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Killer whale calf antics—always so fun to watch!

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Beautiful AP4. None of AP pod’s whales have official names, so I decided to give some of them names myself. I stuck with the theme of naming them after geographic areas in Alaska.

This is Pogibshi, or “Pogi” for short. Point Pogibshi is a point of land in outer Kachemak Bay. It is said to come from the Russian word for “perilous.”