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Welcome to our Summer Field Team!

DANA

Dana is from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She spends most of the year bundled up against the Canadian winter, and frequently escapes to the mountains to go cross-country skiing, canoeing, and hiking.  

She just graduated from a Bachelors in Ecology at the University of Calgary. Her honours project was on the spread of an invasive diatom in Alberta’s lakes. She spent last summer as a research assistant in a freshwater ecology lab, catching fish in the Bow River to study their stress hormones.

While the streams and lakes near Calgary are beautiful, Dana’s real interest is the ocean. To get marine experience while studying at a land-locked university, Dana ventured west to the Bamfield Marine Science Centre on Vancouver Island. In Bamfield Dana became even more excited about the ocean and marine conservation.

Dana feels so lucky to be joining AWF this summer. She is looking forward to exploring the Alaskan wilderness, being part of an amazing organization, and spending quality time with her favourite animal – the humpback whale.

 MAEVE

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Maeve is from Ireland and has an undergraduate degree in Physiology and a MSc in Marine Biology.

For Maeve’s graduate research project, she traveled to Penang, Malaysia for three months to undertake research with WorldFish in genetics and behavioral studies. Her thesis paper was on Social hierarchy in Nile tilapia Oreochromis niloticus: genetic influences and association of sclera color. Her research experience also includes being part of a team at the University of Florida, involved in research on neuroplasticity in the brain and spinal cord and its influence on the control of breathing.

Maeve has a keen interest in photography, and looks forward to strengthening her skills while in Warm Springs Bay, and hopes to integrate photography into her future research as a way to help bridge the gap between research and the public. What better way to educate people about these magnificent mammals than with a snapshot of their world!

Future research goals that Maeve hopes to pursue would be to compare physiology between large marine mammal species, and to gain a better understanding of human impacts and influences on mammalian behavior. 

DAVIDE

Davide is from Italy and he graduated in Biology at the University of Genoa at the beginning of June. He has had a passion for cetaceans since he was a child and he wants to continue his studies in that direction looking for a Master program in Marine Biology abroad.

He has already done some field experience with cetaceans: the first one in the Ligurian Sea (Italy) in the “Pelagos Sanctuary” with the Tethys Research Institute and Genoa University where he participated on boat-based surveys on a whale watching boat collecting different of all the species that are found in that area (fin whale, sperm whale, Cuvier's beaked whale, pilot whale, and bottlenose, striped, Risso's and common dolphin). The subject of Davide's thesis is a geostatistical approach to identifying potential hotspots for cetacean conservation, a study of abundance, habitat use and the ecology pattern of fin whales and sperm whales in the Ligurian Sea from 2003 to 2014, based on boat surveys.
His second internship was in Spain, at the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute, where he participated in a lot of projects and activities and spending most of the time working with Photo-id of bottlenose dolphins both on boat and in the lab.

Davide is very excited to come to Alaska both to increase his knowledge and work about marine mammals and also to share a wonderful experience with AWF’s research team.

 

MARGERITA

Margerita has a great passion for nature conservation and wildlife and is delighted to be offered the opportunity to carry out research and implement wildlife monitoring in Alaska. She was born and raised in Germany and completed her BSc in Wildlife Management in The Netherlands. Up until now, she has been mainly involved in terrestrial research projects, which include, amongst others, the interplay between ticks, tick-borne diseases and wildlife, as well as population estimates of large herbivores in Sweden, feral cat behavior based ontri-axial accelerometers on the Dutch island Schiermonnikoog and the distribution of Lepidoptera species and flowering plants in South Africa. Margerita has always wanted to visit Alaska and experience the wilderness of a seemingly untouched nature. Therefore, she is really excited to be able to contribute and support AWF’s research team and projects and is especially looking forward to gaining insights into marine mammal related research at the Center for Coastal Conservation.

 

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The foraging habits of the three stooges

Leonie obtained her bachelor degree in Biological Science from the University of Rostock (Germany) just before she started her second field season with the Alaska Whale Foundation in 2016. After several years of work as a naturalist in the Azores and positions as a research assistant in Italy and New Zealand she feels a strong connection with Southeast Alaska’s remote wilderness. When Leonie attended a whale stranding in New Zealand in 2010, her particular interest in social interactions between individual cetaceans was formed. Leonie is currently working on a sustainability plan for the Center for Coastal Conservation in Warm Springs Bay to reduce our impacts on the environment.  
 


The first part of this year’s field season at the Center for Coastal Conservation is already reaching its final few weeks. Fortunately, we have had two months full of surprisingly warm spring weather, amazing cetacean surveys, and numerous adventures while out hiking, bushwhacking, and kayaking. Since it is the beginning of the season and still early, it seems most of the humpback whales are still on their migration route from Hawai’i back to the cold and nutrient-rich waters of Alaska. Nonetheless, we have been fortunate enough to repeatedly encounter a few individuals in several locations along the eastern shores of Baranof Island. These encounters have enabled us to gain a better understanding of how these individuals forage. 

As described by Jurasz & Jurasz in 1979, we know that bubble net feeding is a commonly seen feeding method of humpback whales in Southeast Alaska. Bubble net feeding can be displayed by solitary animals, small groups, and larger groups of 10-20 whales. In the larger groups, the whales work cooperatively with one another and each individual has its own role to play in this spectacular feeding event. While one humpback whale creates a bubble net by pushing air out of its two blowholes in order to herd small schooling fish, another whale uses vocalizations to force the prey to the surface. Other group members flash their pectoral fins, which are usually white on the underside, to push fish into the bubble net. As a last step of this group feeding behavior, the whales break collectively through the surface with their mouths wide open, taking in huge gulps of the aggregated fish.    

What we have observed over the last weeks were slightly varied methods of solo or small group bubble net feeding, revealing each individual whale’s unique characteristics. I would like to give three different examples of feeding “styles”, shown by whales we have encountered on several occasions. It is important to mention that the behaviors described below were interpreted by us as human observers.

The whale “Hobo” (#2227), whom researchers from Professor Jan Straley’s Whale Lab (University of Alaska, Southeast) have been studying for years, is known to feed along the coastal vicinity of Baranof Island in early spring. We have witnessed her feeding on hatchery raised salmon in this region, which are generally released in early May and tend to stick to the protected shoreline before they start their migration to sea. “Hobo” developed a feeding technique which allows her to feed on small schooling fish, no matter what the tides do. Funny enough, we often observe her “sitting” on the shore bed when it is low tide, lifting her head high out of the water to successfully catch fish. In order to get closer to the rocks, and therefore to the fish, she will turn sideways and sometimes scrape the rocks with her pectoral fins. At times she also hovers above the ground, lifting her body high up, and flashing her white pectorals while searching for prey.       

Picture taken from the dock at Warm Springs Bay, Baranof Island, with a 200 mm lense.

Picture taken from the dock at Warm Springs Bay, Baranof Island, with a 200 mm lense.

Another individual we have frequently observed is a juvenile humpback whale, who appears to be in his first stages of developing his own distinctive feeding technique. Every time he attempts to forage, he causes big splashes of water, and seems rather uncoordinated when doing so. There seems to be no steadiness or pattern to his movements. (Note: We were not able yet to match this individual in designated humpback whale Photo-ID catalogs)

Pictures taken from the dock at Warm Springs Bay, Baranof Island, with a 200 mm lense. 

Pictures taken from the dock at Warm Springs Bay, Baranof Island, with a 200 mm lense. 

The third whale that has shown a very unique feeding technique acquired the nickname “Pelican” for good reason; whenever we observe this particular whale, he flaps his pectoral fins up and down, like a bird moves its wings to fly, to getting his head high out of the water. Once his baleen mouth is high above the water surface, he closes his mouth like a pelican scooping up its prey. Pelican has definitely shown the most spectacular feeding behavior, but whether it is more efficient than the other techniques remains a mystery. So how do humpback whales learn their behaviors and how long does it take them? Is it more efficient to come to East Baranof and feed on small schooling fish than going to different, maybe richer feeding grounds? How do these whales know at what time to arrive here? All these unanswered questions show how little we actually know about humpback whales and how much there is yet to be discovered. 

Picture taken with a 300 mm lense under the permit number #14122 Photo credit: Madison Kosma

Picture taken with a 300 mm lense under the permit number #14122
Photo credit: Madison Kosma

Recently, sightings of these individual humpback whales have become rare. The most recent hatchery release of salmon smolt in this area dates back a few weeks now, and the lack of small schooling fish in the near shore areas may have forced the whales to move on to richer feeding grounds in other parts of Southeast Alaska. We are very grateful for the new knowledge we gained by observing these unique characters. See you next spring, guys!    

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