RESEARCH

For over two decades, Alaska Whale Foundation has been supporting impassioned scientists who promote understanding and conservation of marine mammals and their coastal habitats.

AWF’s broad research program ranges from interest-driven studies on the social structure and foraging ecology of Southeast Alaska’s whales, to increasingly timely research on ocean health and human-whale conflicts.  Drones, hydrophones, sonars, plankton nets, biochemical analyses, suction-cup tags - all factor into AWF's research toolkit and provide unprecedented views into the lives of these incredible animals.

AWF maintains a large - and growing - catalog of photo-identification images of whales that is providing valuable insight into the abundance trends, social structure, and feeding habits of the Alaska's whales.

UNDERWATER BEHAVIOR

In 2019, AWF began using suction-cup-attached CATS Cam tags that carry video cameras, hydrophones and a series of onboard sensors to explore the underwater behavior of Alaska's humpbacks.

This new study, which was launched in partnership with the University of Hawaii's Marine Mammal Research Program, UC Santa Cruz's Bio-telemetry and Behavioral Ecology Lab and Stanford's Goldbogen Lab, is providing novel insight into the social interactions, group coordination, vocal behavior and tool use in these whales.

Cooperative bubble-netting humpbacks in Southeast Alaska
Solitary bubble-netting humpback whale in Southeast Alaska

Our preliminary analyses are revealing that not only do humpbacks use bubbles as tools, which is remarkable in its own right, they modify the shape and depth of deployment of those tools when targeting different prey.  As well, we've found that when hunting cooperatively, a single whale ('Captain Hook' in the video above) deploys the 'bubble-net' for the benefit of the group. This form of complex and communal tool use is rare in the animal kingdom.  The data are also revealing a high degree of behavioral coordination in these cooperative groups, which is likely facilitated by their use of vocalizations; yet, as the second video shows, they do not need to work together - solitary whales are just as adept at corralling prey with bubble-nets.  With so many intriguing findings from our first season, we're excited to see what else will be revealed with another dedicated effort in 2020!

A BIRDS-EYE VIEW OF WHALE BEHAVIOR

Observing whales with drones from above is changing the way we view them - both literally and figuratively. 

Groups of foraging humpbacks that seem disorganized and unpredictable from a boat reveal themselves to be surprisingly graceful and coordinated from the air.  Calves that appear to be simply splashing at the surface turn out to be practicing how to lunge feed.  AWF Research Associate Madison Kosma recently published a scientific article on a novel prey-herding strategy used by whales that feed at salmon hatcheries - something that could only be observed from this novel vantage point.  Drones are even contributing to our study addressing whale health (which you can read about below).  By offering this new perspective, drones are helping us answer longstanding questions about whale behavior while presenting us with exciting new ones that we had yet to consider.

Humpback calf lunges at imaginary prey

Alaska Whale Foundation is concerned about the health of humpback whales in Southeast Alaska.

WHALE HEALTH

Reduced numbers, fewer calves, and emaciated adults - these recent observations have us worried.  Fortunately, with new tools and techniques, we're better equipped than ever to monitor how the animals are doing.  

Researchers have long known that humpback whales have a diverse and colorful acoustic repertoire.  However, little is known about the role that communication plays in the lives of these animals.

AWF biologists are using underwater microphones, playback speakers and a team of trained observers to try to decipher the meaning of the various calls produced by these soniferous giants.  Click on the buttons to hear a sample of the sounds they have recorded.

ACOUSTICS
AWF is able to achieve its research goals in the remote wilderness of Southeast Alaska because of individual donors who are as passionate about our mission as we are.  

Please consider making a contribution today.

Mail: PO Box 1927, Petersburg, AK, 99833
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Alaska Whale Foundation is a federally-registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Donations are tax-deductible as allowed by US law.
All images, video and acoustic material collected under National Marine Fisheries Permit Number 19703.