Whale Count Results
INTRO: During three days last month, scientists asked Alaskans and visitors to the state's coast to be on the lookout for killer whales. Scientists are trying to learn more about these highly successful predators and what role they may be playing in keeping Steller sea lion numbers low in parts of the state. Doug Schneider has more in this week's Arctic Science Journeys Radio.
STORY: When Kerry Irish decided to count Alaska's killer whales, she quickly realized that she couldn't possibly be everywhere along the state's 35,000 miles of coast at the same time. The next thing she realized was that other people are just as fascinated about these black-and-white whales as she is. It's a fascination she's trying to tap into.
IRISH: "The first time I ever encountered a killer whale when I was doing research was about 13 years ago, and it swam right up beside the boat and turned on its side and looked me right in the eye. That's an encounter to this day that is still very vivid for me. I think killer whales have that hold on people. There's something about them that makes people want to talk to you about them and tell you what they've seen."
And that's exactly what more than 100 people did earlier this summer, during Alaska's first statewide killer whale count. During three days last month, boaters, fishermen, tourists—indeed anyone on the water—were asked to phone, email, fax or use a special Internet site to report their sightings of killer whales to Irish at her lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. By all accounts the first attempt to solicit the public's help in counting Alaska's killer whales was a success.
IRISH: "We had overwhelming response from Alaskans from all walks
of life. We had commercial fishermen participate. We had members of
the general public. Even the Alaska State Ferry participated and some
of the cruise ships. People saw killer whales doing all sorts of wonderful
things, from sleeping, if you can believe that, to one fishermen who
reported that he saw killer whales chase some sea lions onto the back
of his boat. We had reports of killer whales breaching, which is when
they jump completely out of the water, and splashing about. We even
had some reports of sexual activity among killer whales. So we really
saw the whole gamut of killer whale behavior."
While Irish is interested in killer whales across the state's coastal waters, she's especially curious to know how many killer whales call the Aleutian Islands and the area around Kodiak Island home. That's because scientists think killer whales there might be preying on Steller sea lions, a species that has experienced unexplained declines throughout western Alaska. Kerry Irish says little is known about killer whales in this very remote region.
IRISH: "A lot of the research that's gone on into the decline of the Steller sea lion has been focused on the sea lions, of course. Not a lot of the research has looked at the ecosystem as a whole. Obviously, Steller sea lions don't exist in and of themselves. They interact with other animals and with the ecosystem. What our study is hoping to do is add another piece to this puzzle in terms of trying to solve the decline. Perhaps killer whales are eating sea lions, and perhaps that's preventing their recovery. Then again, killer whales out there might have a taste only for fish or other large whales. We really don't have any idea."
The killer whale count ran from July 19th through the 21st. So far about 100 people have filed reports, and about half of them say they saw killer whales. Andrew Trites is the director of the marine mammal research program at the University of British Columbia. He says people reported a variety of sightings, some believable, and some not so believable.
TRITES: "This one in particular of 100 to 200 whales has really got us puzzled. We'd like to know what these people have actually seen. So that's one we'd like to follow up on a bit more."
Trites and Irish say a lot was learned that will be used to make the next survey even better.
IRISH: "We'd like to see if there's any difference in distribution patterns or abundance of the whales in the winter time. So the first week of March we'll do it again and again next summer, probably in July."
OUTRO: If you'd like to learn more about the Alaska killer whale survey, check out their web site at http://www.alaskakillerwhales.org. This is Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the Alaska Sea Grant Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences. I'm Doug Schneider.
Audio version and related Web sites (sidebar at top right)
Thanks to the following individuals for help preparing this script:
Kerry Irish, Orca Researcher
Andrew W. Trites, Ph.D., Director
Arctic Science Journeys is a radio service highlighting science, culture, and the environment of the circumpolar north. Produced by the Alaska Sea Grant College Program and the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The shortcut to our ASJ news home page is www.asjnews.org.
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