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Alaska Whale Foundation has been studying humpback whales and their coastal habitats for over two decades. 

Over the years, our broad research program has included studies on the foraging ecology, social structure, communication, and unique behaviors of Southeast Alaska’s humpback whales. However, in the last decade declines in whale numbers, calving rates, and overall health have led us to develop a comprehensive research program focused on how changing oceans are impacting whales and marine ecosystems.


Monitoring Abundance and Distribution Patterns


Every month from late spring through fall, AWF conducts systematic surveys for whales throughout northern Southeast Alaska. The data from these surveys allow AWF researchers to estimate how many whales forage in the region each year and to track their seasonal movement patterns, both of which are fundamental to understanding how whales are impacted by changes in their habitat.



Tracking the Life Histories of Individual Whales


Every humpback whale’s tail has its own unique black and white pigmentation pattern and shape. Like a human fingerprint, we can use these ‘fluke prints’ to identify individuals. By collecting fluke photos and comparing them to  “photo-identification” catalogs, we’ve been able to follow the lives of individual whales for over three decades as they travel the inside waters of Southeast Alaska (and beyond).​


A Birds-eye View of Whale Health


Since 2018, AWF researchers have been using custom Unoccupied Aerial Systems (“drones”) to measure the body volume of individual whales. A whale’s body volume reflects its blubber (i.e., energy) stores and is therefore a valuable proxy for its general health. Year-to-year changes in body volume at the population level are similarly valuable indicators of the productivity of their underlying ecosystem, making drones important tools towards monitoring the health of marine ecosystems.

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Novel Insight into Whales’ Underwater Behavior


Since the earliest days of whale research, investigators have struggled to understand how whales behave and interact with their environment once they disappear below the surface. However, we now have “animal-borne” suction-cup tags carrying cameras, hydrophones and various environmental sensors that provide an unprecedented view of their underwater lives.


How to give a whale a medical exam

A whale’s skin and blubber tissue can tell us a lot. Hormone concentrations in its blubber can reveal whether it is pregnant or stressed. Carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios in its skin indicate what it has been eating. DNA extracted from its tissues allow us to determine its sex, relatedness to other whales, and where it breeds. The characteristics of its fat cells provide a window into its body condition. Amazingly, all of this information can be gleaned from a single biopsy sample and, when combined with photo-identification records and drone-derived body volume estimates, we can create medical records for each whale we encounter. ​

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