top of page


For over two decades, Alaska Whale Foundation has been studying humpback whales and their coastal habitats. AWF’s broad research program has included studies on the foraging ecology, unique behaviors, communication, and social structure of Southeast Alaska’s humpback whales.

However, in recent years declines in their numbers, calving rates, and overall health have led us to pivot towards research into how changing oceans are impacting whales. Fortunately, with new tools and techniques, we're better equipped than ever to tackle these new research challenges. 

photoid killers.jpg


Tracking the Life Histories of Individual Whales


Like a human fingerprint, every humpback has its own unique 'fluke-print'.  By collecting fluke photos and creating “photo-identification” catalogs, we can track the lives of individual whales as they travel the inside waters of Southeast Alaska.  

AWF has been collecting photo-identification images of Southeast Alaskan whales for nearly three decades. 


A Birds-eye View of Whale Behavior and Health


Drones have become increasingly valuable tools for measuring whale health. Armed with high resolution cameras, laser altimeters, and cutting edge ‘photogrammetric’ techniques, we can now measure the volume of individual whales with such high accuracy that we can estimate how much weight an individual might have gained or lost over only a few days. This is allowing us to track how whale are being impacted by changing ocean conditions and food availability.



Novel Insight into Whales’ Underwater Behavior


In 2019, AWF partnered 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 to explore the underwater behavior of whales using suction-cup-attached CATSCam tags. These tags carry video cameras, hydrophones and a series of onboard sensors that allow us to not only see and hear the whales’ environment as they do, but to recreate their three-dimensional swimming behavior. We are using the resulting data to study whale swimming behavior, social interactions, group coordination, vocalization behavior and nursing behavior. 


Estimating Patterns of Abundance and Distribution 


In 2016, following an unprecedented warming event in the North Pacific (the “Blob”), AWF began documenting disconcerting declines in several critical humpback whale health metrics. This prompted us to launch a series of whale abundance and distribution surveys. Now, years later, we conduct systematic surveys every month from June through September throughout most of northern Southeast Alaska. Using the resulting data, we can track seasonal and annual trends in whale abundance, distribution, habitat use, and calving rates, and relate those trends to various measures of ocean health and productivity. Currently, AWF Research Associates Rocio Prieto Gonzalez and Rhianna Thurber are using our survey data to examine how whales were impacted by the Blob and, more importantly, whether they are showing enduring signs of recovery.



How to give a whale a medical exam

Whale skin and blubber tissue analyses have emerged as powerful techniques for addressing whale health. These tissues, which are collected using a pencil-erasure sized arrow tip launched from a crossbow, can be used to analyze genetic relatedness, sex, reproduction hormones and pregnancy rates, stress hormone levels, diets and general body condition – all from a single sample. In essence, we can conduct a complete medical exam on an individual whale and, when applied to many whales, provide a very nuanced view of the population’s health. 

bottom of page