A Different Kind of Year in Review: Whale Reports

By , January 3, 2010

I grumble at Christmas time about the family newsletter we traditionally write. A cousin appropriately dubbed it “the Christmas term paper,” a major writing project in the middle of the holidays. Since moving to the homestead, we’ve acquired another writing project that is at times even more daunting, although fewer people anticipate its completion.

The project is a compilation of whale sightings for the past year.

I’ve briefly mentioned our Wildlife Journal before. When we moved to the homestead, we bought a blank book to record our encounters with our wild neighbors. We log sightings of local birds and animals, their tracks or other sign. By far the most impressive of these are the whales that roam the fjord in front of our property. Chiefly, we see humpback whales and killer whales, although in the summer we’ve seen one or more minke whales in the area. We’re most careful about logging the whales, because a neighbor told us about reporting the sightings to Jan Straley, a noted whale biologist in Sitka. Now, we compile each year’s sightings around the New Year, and email them to her. She has told us in the past that this sort of “citizen science” is very important to her research, as professional whale biologists can’t be everywhere. She described one important document that included no other whale information than what had been reported by casual viewers.

Because it is scientific data, then, we try to note everything about each whale we see, which is no easy task. A common way to identify a humpback whale is by the pattern on the underside of its tail. If two of us are watching the same whale, we usually end up with two very different descriptions! We do our best, and hope the data’s useful.

I just finished compiling the notes from the previous year. Our views peaked in May and June, during the herring runs, when the whales come in closer to the beach than usual. Perhaps the most interesting observation is the strange vocalization we’ve not heard before 2009. The best way to describe it is the sound the terminal car ramp makes when it scrapes the ferry’s car deck in shifting seas. The whales appear to make it partly by exhaling underwater. It’s extremely loud—very disconcerting when they do it in our bight! We’re hoping Ms. Straley will have some information on it. She generally emails back with a few comments. She’s even talked about taking us up on our invitation to come up to observe the whales from our property. That would be an excellent homeschooling opportunity!

Now that it’s winter, we see very few whales. The majority of Alaska’s humpbacks head for Hawaii (like the human population) but many stay in Alaska. Few of them spend the winter in Lynn Canal, though; they find more sheltered waters elsewhere in the panhandle. The whales that might still be in our area are a lot harder to see, with less daylight and rougher seas. Sometime in March they’ll start to be more common, and we’ll start logging views for next year’s report.

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