Whales.

by Sarah Lake Upton in


One of my favorite things about the Alaska season (aside from the weather, and the mountains, and the marine mammals, and the ravens, and the glaciers - really I just like Alaska) is getting to hear Andy Szabo from the Alaska Whale Foundation do his talk.   His talks each week have the same outline, but like most very smart enthusiastic people he is easily persuaded by guest questions to go on tangents about killer whales (not his area of research, but clearly something he knows quite a bit about) and fishing techniques and random stories of human whale interactions up here. I try to listen to his talk every week, because every week I am reminded of something, or learn something, that totally reshapes my view of whales.

For example:  There are two distinct populations of killer whales up here, fish eaters and mammal eaters.  Despite looking basically identical to us, they have completely different social structure, “speak” totally different dialects, and have not interbred in a very very long time.  (To go an a tangent of my own, in the traditions of Pacific Northwest peoples there is an “killer whale - wolf” creature distinct from the killer whale, that is generally taken by modern folk to be mythical, but hearing about the two populations of killer whales I have begun to wonder if the folk up here had noticed the same behavioral differences in their killer whale population and named them accordingly).

 Killers whales, July 2015, Southeast Alaska.  I'm not sure where we were (Kelp Bay?) but we spent a lovely evening watching this pod go about their business.  

Killers whales, July 2015, Southeast Alaska.  I'm not sure where we were (Kelp Bay?) but we spent a lovely evening watching this pod go about their business.  

And; Humpback whales up here cooperatively bubble net for herring in groups of eight to twelve.  The members of each group are no more related to each other than to any other whales in the area, which makes their cooperative feeding a bit of an anomaly in the animal world.  The members of the group seem to be task specialists, with one member of the group acting as the “caller” who, through making a very distinctive noise at just the pitch that herring will apparently do anything to get away from, drive the ball of herring up into the net of bubbles blown by a different task specialist in the group.  The bubble net itself, being something deliberately shaped and external to the body, meets the definition of “tool”, which makes the humpback whales up here task-specialist cooperative tool users.  Which is just cool.  (Also, only a very small percentage of the whales up here cooperatively bubble net - most of them feed by themselves on krill, which is actually a better calorie source than herring). 

 

 Bubble netting humpback whales, Wrangell Narrows, Alaska,  September 2014.   -   

Bubble netting humpback whales, Wrangell Narrows, Alaska,  September 2014.   -   

When the herring are in season we often get to watch this group bubble netting behavior.   The group of whales dive in a specific order, do their flipper-flashing bubble-net creating thing, and then appear as a mass, all eight or ten at once inside the boundaries of the net they created, mouths agape and then quickly closed to expel the extra water with their tongues, straining out the herring.  They are so close together when they do this that from the surface it can be difficult to sort out one whale from the next.  They pause for a moment or two on the surface, then re-line up to do it all again.  Apparently when they are done for the evening, or when the fishing just isn’t that good, one of them will breach, then the rest will breach a few times, and everyone will go on their way.  Andy refers to this as a “disassociation ritual” in his talk. 

The Alaska Whale Foundation relies on college and grad students to collect a lot of the observational data they use.  They have just acquired land up here to create more of a permanent center for field schools.  I am very much wishing that they had been around when I was still college student.  

So, anyone with a college student who is interested in Marine Biology should maybe check them out.  (High school and college students interested in Marine Biology or Marine Ecology should also check into Sea Education Association - I worked for them for a bit and their programs are amazing). 

In other news, while I was home I got certified in dry-suit diving.  I am not a natural at dry suit diving, but I am practicing and getting better at it and I have now been diving twice up here.  

In a dry suit.  

In Alaska.  

About two years ago now, during my job interview for this position, the port-engineer asked me if I was a diver, and over the course of the conversation it became apparent that what he actually wanted to know was whether I was dry-suit certified so that I could dive in Alaska.  I managed not to say what I was actually thinking, which ran along the lines of “no, of course I’m not certified to dry-suit dive, and only really crazy people dry-suit dive in Alaska, I’m also not a certified pilot of float planes”. And yet here I am.  (And it was seeing the footage brought back by the undersea specialist last year in Alaska that convinced me to get my scuba certification to begin with - I am not thinking about what that implies).   

 

So here I am.  The gnome was brought along by some of our guests, who very nicely asked if we could get photos of the gnome with undersea creatures on our dive.  For some reason Ashely (our current undersea specialist) decided to take my photo with the gnome too.  The photo was taken at the end  of our dive, and I am very very very cold.  (And very happy).