Researchers study Juneau’s whales without cruise ship passenger interactions

Researchers collect blubber samples from humpback whales near Juneau, Alaska.
Researchers collect blubber samples from humpback whales near Juneau, Alaska.(Jayleen Bydlon | NOAA Fisheries)
Published: Aug. 14, 2020 at 8:48 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Although a summer with virtually no cruise ship traffic in Southeast Alaska has dealt a blow to the region’s economy, the situation is giving scientists a rare opportunity to better understand the impacts humans have on whales.

Researchers are working to collect photo-identification data and biopsies from whale blubber, as well as samples of their blow.

“We realized we had this really unique, probably once in a lifetime opportunity to get out there and study the whales and figure out what they’re doing in the absence of a lot of boat traffic,” Heidi Pearson, an associate professor of marine biology at UAS, said.

The project is a collaboration between NOAA Fisheries, UAS and UAF.

“It can be really challenging to study certain things, particularly looking at stress and cortisol in blubber,” said Marine Mammal Specialist with NOAA Fisheries Suzie Teerlink. “You begin to ask the questions of ‘what’s normal?’ We don’t have benchmarks or baselines to compare to, and with the abrupt pause in the Alaska cruise industry going from about 2.2 million passengers to nearly zero, it’s created quite the opportunity to collect those baseline data”

The goal is to collect samples from 30 whales this summer. They hope to collect samples from ten of those whales more than once over the course of data collection.

The tails, or flukes, of humpback whales are unique like a human fingerprint and allow researchers to identify individual whales. Blubber samples will give insight into stress levels over a longer period of time, while the samples collected from the moisture expelled through their blowhole should provide a reflection of stress levels at that moment.

“It’s complicated beyond just straight comparing samples from one year to another,” Teerlink said. “In 2014, I collected biopsy samples from many of the common Juneau area whales as part of my Ph.D. research. And we have now sampled many of those whales again in 2020. It will be interesting to look at their steroid hormone composition side by side, but still, there are other factors that weigh into things. For example, what the prey is doing and other oceanographic conditions, and so we’re interested to make these comparisons and it will take time and it will take a cautious approach to assessing what it means to have differing levels of cortisol.”

Although the lab analysis on the samples won’t be completed until fall, Pearson says she has observed anecdotal changes in the whales around Juneau this summer.

“From my perspective, I know that I’ve seen a handful of whales here that seem new to me that I haven’t seen before,” Pearson said. “They could be in the area perhaps because there are fewer boats, but of course prey is a driving factor for how whales move around in Southeast Alaska, so it’s hard to tease the two apart, but based on my observations it’s exciting to see some new whales in the area.”

The project is funded by NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region through a grant to Pacific State Marine Fisheries Commission. The results may help inform management decisions in the future.

“Both Heidi and I have been, over the years, really interested looking at both the benefits of whale watching and how that translates into either the visitor experience and what they’re learning or the economics within our community, but also interested to know if there are any negative impacts from vessel traffic so that we can understand what would be a sustainable way forward and ensure that the industry can continue on in the future,” Teerlink said.

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