Category Archives: Wildllife

I get outside a lot. I mean a lot. I hope to convey the joy I have in it here!

End Of the Rope : Disentangling a Humpback Whale

It is not every day you get to save the life a whale. In fact, it may not be more than once in a lifetime. However, I can say with certainty, that if you are able to successfully save a whale from entanglement it is the best feeling in the world. You will feel like life just cannot get much better!

On September 16th, 2018, the 35-foot landing craft, Silver Spoon, cruised through the flat waters of Chatam Strait about 30 miles south of Juneau, Alaska. The bluebird day was abnormally sunny for autumn in Southeast Alaska. On board, Captain Billy Mills was taking Kurt Pesch, Kathy Pesch, Kassie Pesch-Johnson and myself up the coast looking for wildlife. We passed False Bay on the east side of Chichagof Island and were near when Wukuklook River when we spotted a whale on the surface.

Marine Mammal Entanglement, Humpback Whale, Alaska
We spotted a whale on the surface. At first we thought the whale was sleeping, but we soon discovered it was towing a rope and buoys.

Ordinarily a whale on the surface is just a sleeping whale. In a typical encounter they wake up, swim a bit, and may eventually take a dive. However, this whale displayed some peculiar behavior by keeping its nose above the water. As we got closer we could see it was pulling a set of buoys behind it and those buoys were keeping it from diving. We watched the whale from a distance to determine the extent of entanglement. The whale never dove and was making distressed chirping sounds with its blowhole. Armed with this information Billy radioed the U.S. Coast Guard in Juneau to report the entangled whale. They collected information on the whales condition and informed NOAA, and informed us they not have any vessels in the region to reach us soon. The whale was moving quickly so the likelihood of NOAA resighting and disentangling the whale was low. Billy made the call to go about helping the whale as we could.

Marine Mammal Entanglement, Humpback Whale, Alaska
The entangled whale had the buoy line through its mouth with a hundred feet or so of line dragging on the left side and about 40 feet of line attached to the buoys. The buoys were keeping the whale from diving.

Before I start into the rest of this tale I need to put out a disclaimer. Humpback Whales and ALL marine mammals deserve your respect. You need to respect all rules regarding minimum distances from whales and we only made the decision to approach this whale after knowing that professionals were not available to help in this situation.  We felt the likelihood of the whale dying were high if we did not at least try to fix the situation.

We approached the whale slowly and encountered the loose green buoy line (the end not attached to the buoys) behind the whale about 100 feet. Using a boat hook we picked up the end and then began to pull the line into the boat. We pulled in much of the line before the whale panicked and took off. I was able to sever the line before the whale stripped it back out of the boat. Not many people can say they’ve had a whale on the line! The whale dove briefly but came back up a few hundred yards way to continue its pattern of swimming with its nose above the water. This just proved to us that the whale could not function without removing the buoys.

The whale was moving quickly, perhaps 12 knots, but we slowly came up behind it for a second approach. With boat-hook in hand our goal was to snag the buoys and complete the disentanglement. Soon I had the buoys in hand and we began to draw more line into the boat. We were fortunate! The loose end of the line began to slide through the whales mouth essentially “flossing” it. This allowed us to remove much of the line.

After pulling much of the line through the whale’s mouth something truly incredible happened. The whale stopped in the water, opened its mouth, and slid backwards into the ocean. It was almost as though it knew we were trying to save it! After sliding backwards into the water the whale began to move and pull the line. More slid through its mouth before finally catching. I severed the line and the whale gave a half breach, a flip of its fluke, and then we did not see it again. Although some of the line was left on the whale it was able to dive and stay down!! We felt confident the rest of the line would eventually get removed. We had done it!!!!

After freeing the whale from most of the line and the buoy it gave a half breach and dove beneath the surface. We did not see it again! Image credit : Kurt Pesch

One of the puzzling things was why this whale was unable to stay down. Although the four crab pot boys attached it were very buoyant, it did not seem like enough to keep the whale on the surface of the ocean. The whale was medium-sized and pretty young. My theory is that the whale acted much like a horse would to the pressure of a bridle and reigns. The upward pressure of the buoys may have kept the whale on the surface. I do not have any proof that, just a theory.

After doing some research I discovered that crab pots like the one this whale entangled in are the most commonly reported. I know I will be doing my part by being as responsible as I can with my sets. Do not use floating line as was used on this crab pot set.

There are times when doing nothing can be better for the animal than doing something. It is likely in this case that the whale would have become more entangled in the long rope and would have injured itself or been unable to swim. I am proud of us all for giving this whale a far better chance for survival!

If you find a in injured, stranded, or entangled marine animal, please report it through NOAA. You can find their number for any region by visiting their website.

Herrings vs. Eagles – Eagles Win and the Photographer Did Too

Arguably herring are the base of the entire food chain in Southeast Alaska. They provide food for whales, salmon, seals, sealions, birds, and halibut with their bodies and with their eggs. For centuries humans have relied on the abundance of herring to provide for their families in the spring.  In Hoonah, Alaska the return of herring marks a change in the a season and a bounty of fresh eggs brings a welcome smile to the elders and community members that receive them. However, in recent years the herring run has not bee large in Hoonah although anecdotally (and a bit facetiously) you could “walk across their backs to Pitt Island” only a couple decades ago. Ocean changes, over fishing, and habitat loss have all contributed to decreasing herring returns and fewer spawning fish in recent years. This knowledge made me feel particularly fortunate to get to see herring spawning in Hoonah and watch the harshness of nature unfold before my eyes as Bald Eagle scooped the silvery fish from the ocean.

Herring, Underwater, GoPro, Alaska, Hoonah
A ball of herring mill about in Hoonah, Alaska.

Spawning herring rely on seaweed and objects in the water to glue their eggs to. Spawning females mix with males and each emit eggs and roe into the water. A sure sign that herring are spawning is a milky, blue water that combines the colors of the ocean and the white of the roe. The need to stick their eggs to seaweed brings the herring close to shore and thus susceptible to predation. As I walked near Cannery Point in Hoonah, Alaska over 30 eagles (a mix of juveniles and adults) lined up on the beach. The color of the water  and brilliant flashes of silver near the shore left little doubt on what they were feeding on!Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

A string of eagles wait for spawning herring at the beach.

Herring, Eggs, Hemlock, Alaska, Subsistence
Herring egg harvesters use branches of Hemlock to capture herring eggs. They lay the branches in the water where herring are spawning and then collect the branches which are (hopefully) laden with eggs.

Trial and Error

One of the first things I noticed was the juvenile eagles were watching the adults very closely. They knew they had a lot to learn, and there was no doubt after several minutes of watching that the adults were much more efficient at catching the herring. Most of the adults would launch from the beach, strafe their talons on the water’s surface and come up with one or two herring. Some eagles opted for a higher vantage point and flew in from the trees on the embankment. Another strategy was to simply stand on a rock or in the water and hope to catch one in without flapping a wing. All of these strategies produced herring for the eagles and the juveniles mimicked them perfectly.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
A young eagle feeds from the rocks instead of flying for its meal.
Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
A eagle goes in deep with its talons in the quest for herring.
Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
A strafing run of an eagle successfully captures a herring.

Meals on the Wing

Even though there was an abundance of herring one strategy of some eagles was to steal from those that were successful. The fierce competition from other birds forced successful eagles to eat very quickly and on the wing. Almost all of the eagles would transfer the herring to their beaks and then orient the fish head first before finally swallowing it hole. This occurred in just a few seconds to remove any chance of pestering, marauding eagles from stealing their catch. I did get to watch once instance where an eagle successfully scooped two herring at once, but did not eat them on the wing. Immediately three other eagles (2 adults and a juvenile) put up chase resulting in the eagle dropping one herring to get rid of the pestilence following it.

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

Two eagles settle a small squabble over who gets some beach space.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

It was incredible to watch the eagles feed on the herring and learn from their behaviors, but as a photographer I was grateful for the frequent and repeated attempts by the eagles to capture herring. I had the opportunity to tinker with camera settings and capture a lot of shots that are high quality and showcase the slice of foodweb that I was only a spectator to.

Bald eagle, photography, alaska, herring, panning
This is my favorite shot from the day. I slowed my shutter speed down and then tracked the eagle as it flew to a perch. The face and claws remained tack sharp and I achieved blur in the wings and the background.
Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
This shot is a close second! I cannot believe the symmetry that these two eagles have as they flew away, or that they both caught herring!
Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska
My third favorite shot of the day. The one that got away!

Parting Shots

Here’s a last few shots. I hope you enjoy!

Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska Bald Eagle, Hoonah, Alaska, Herring, Feeding, Southeast Alaska

The Waters, Wildlife, and Culture Between the Glaciers and Hoonah, Alaska

It is always a big deal when family comes to visit. For me, being a “big deal” is a positive thing! My wife and I are fortunate to live in a place surrounded by natural beauty with something to see or do around every corner. I always strive to show off my little corner of the world in Hoonah, Alaska  and decided that my parents, uncle, and two cousins needed to see Glacier Bay National Park and the local whales around Hoonah during their visit. It’s nice when all the right things come together to bring “the full package”! We enjoyed incredible weather and wildlife sightings over 2.5 days.

Whale Tail, Hoonah, Alaska

Glacier Bay Tribal House

Over the last 2 years I have had the incredible experience to be at the dedication of the tribal house and to take part in the raising of two totems at the tribal house. Those two events were so very important to the Huna Tlingit, but they also gave me a tremendous connection to Bartlett Cove and the land where the Huna Shuka Hit resides. When I visit the tribal house I remember the stories of the people, the emotions of the day, and the power of the place. Stepping into the tribal house to observe the house poles, place my hand on the intricate carving of the screens, and smell the sweet aroma of cedar give me a sense of peace. I enjoyed sharing my stories of the raising and dedication with family as we toured around that special place.

Glacier Bay National Park, Tribal House, Huna Shuka Hit, Totem Pole, Carving, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
This is the inside screen of Huna Shuka Hit. This place is incredible to behold and every sense has a new observation to provide your brain as you probe into it complex artistry.

Into the Park

Glacier Bay National Park is almost completely inaccessible unless you have a boat. Its long fjords and glacially-carved mountains extend nearly 90 miles from the entrance of the park at Bartlett Cove.  The “Day Boat” of Glacier Bay provides access to visitors all the way to the end of the bitter end of the west arm where Margerie Glacier butts against the ocean and the Grand Pacific Glacier (responsible for carving the fjord of the park) recedes into the distance further than the eye can see.  250 years ago the Grand Pacific Glacier was responsible for pushing the Huna Tlingit out of Glacier Bay National Park when it advanced over 75 miles in only only a few decades. Traditional stories say that at times the glacier moved as fast as a running dog! Science has backed those claims, and it is truly amazing to think what that wall of ice must have looked like!

Family, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
We made it to the glacier! My mom, dad, and I in front of Magerie Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park.
Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
The face of Margerie glacier stands over 200 feet high and is a mile wide. It “calves” ice into the water creating a maze of jumbled ice.

Glacier Bay National Park protected area full of marine and terrestrial wildlife. During our tour we had incredible view of breaching Humpback Whales, families of grizzlies, harems of sealions, rafts of otters, flocks of puffins, and families of goats. Each of these sightings added to the richness of the day and the overpowering feeling that we were in a very special place!

Stellar Sea Lion, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A Stellar Sealion bull chases a pup on the rocks of South Marble Island.
Porcupine, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A porcupine keeps a wary eye on me – half trusting that I meant it no harm.
Brown Bear, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A family of 4 Coastal Brown Bears surveys the scene.
Gloomy Knob, Mountain Goat, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A nanny Mountain Goat and her young (~ 2 week old) kid
Humpback Whale, Breaching, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A breaching Humpback Whale as we trekked into Glacier Bay National Park.
Sea Otter, Glacier Bay National Park, Southeast Alaska, Alaska
A Sea Otter floats on by. Sea Otters have risen to such numbers in the park that they are at risk of eating themselves out of house and home.

The Whale Tail to End the Tale

We got a pickup in Gustavus from our good friend Capt. Billy Mills of Wooshketaan Tours.  He took us across Icy Strait to Point Adolphus which is renowned for its whale watching. The rich waters are fed by the currents coming in from the ocean and from Glacier Bay and create abundant fish populations that bring in apex predators such as whales and sea lions.

Whale, Eagle, Alaska, Southeast Alaska, Whale Watching
A Humpback Whale emerges from the water with an eagle in the background.

As we sped along the 20 miles from Point Adolphus to Hoonah I admired the mountains, the tall groves of Sitka Spruce and Hemlock, and the abundant Sea Otters and Whales.  The trip went quickly, and as we approached Flynn cove about 8 miles from Hoonah a gigantic splash ahead of us flung water high in the air. The Humpback Whale that caused it obliged us by breaching 5 times in total! It was the closest I had ever been to a breaching humpback and it was a thrill to share my giddiness with all on board!

Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours
A breaching Humpback Whale erupts from the water outside of Hoonah, Alaska. What a sight!!
Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours
A breaching Humpback Whale erupts from the water outside of Hoonah, Alaska. What a sight!!

With the memory of the breaching still fresh in  our memory we turned into Port Frederick and after a brief stop ashore made our way up bay . The spouts of water ahead quickly gave the location of what we were looking for – a large pod of Humpback Whales were bubble net feeding in front of us! In the smooth waters we watched the circle of bubbles form on the surface from the whales below and the mouths of 40-foot humbpacks rise agape through the surface. We were the only boat on the water and got to enjoy the show in the lingering sunset and surrounded by family. I (we) were incredibly blessed to be in that incredible place together.

Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours, Bubblenet Feeding
Bubble Net Feeding Humpback Whales erupt from the water in Port Frederick, Hoonah, Alaska. In the behavior, the whales coordinate an under water screen of bubbles that concentrate baitfish before the whale synchronously scoop of the ball of fish.
Humpback Whale, Alaska, Breaching, Jumping, Southeast Alaska, Hoonah, Whale Watching, Wooshketan Tours
Two Humpback Whales begin to dive in search of food.

A Mink in the Mussels

A few months back I was walking the shores of Hoonah, Alaska with my wife when we saw a furry brown streak shoot out of the rocks along the ocean. With smiles of pleasure we watched as the mink dove under a thick bed of green, leafy, rock weed that covered the rocks exposed by the low-tide and erupted from it a few feet from where its nose had entered. Like a swimmer diving through water it dove and emerged again and then it changed tactics. Like a cat playing with its paws inside of an empty brown bag it shuffled and flipped the weeds looking for any wriggling food underneath. I knew that the weeds hide small fish, crabs, and sea-cucumbers and any of those would have been a feast for this small mammal.

In its focused pursuit of food, the Mink payed me little regard as I moved closer. Soon I was within 10 feet of this active animal. I followed it along the shore for 50 yards enjoying  and watching its behaviors. I had not considered how many holes were in the rocks until the Mink poked its head into nearly every one of them systematically!  The Mink disappeared into a rock outcropping thick with rock weed and emerged with a sculpin as its prize. Although sculpin have heavy spines in their head, the mink crunched through the whole carcasses and even the bony head before heading to another rock outcropping to find some more.

The Mink consumes a sculpin that it scavenged from under the rock weed.

The Mink disappeared under a large bolder laced in blue mussels. I made my move and walked across the beach and stepped on top of the bolder. When the Mink reemerged it looked up and me and ducked back into the rocks. Obviously unsure if it was safe to come out but too curious to care it soon reappeared, took a glance at me, and then started to forage in the rocks under my feet. I was only 7 feet away from the lithe body as it scurried and poked and made me smile.

I’ve thought quite a bit about that Mink in the mussels since then because the opportunity was, well, opportune and I took the chance to watch and learn. In a world where everything is the next biggest priority this Mink was a reminder to stop and smell the roses. My advice to you is when you have a chance to sit, watch, and learn, take it. Whatever comes next can wait a bit.

A mink comes out of the rocks after scouting around for food. I watched this cute little bugger dive around in the rocks for almost 40 minutes.

A Day With the Vole Patrol

In northern Minnesota a chain of bogs and open forest near Sax and Zim are full of winged wonders. This track of land, the Sax Zim Bog, is renowned for its migrants from northern Boreal Forests that flit among the spruces and for the ghostly shapes of owls that drift on silent wings among the tamaracks. Spending time in the bog can provide amazing opportunities to watch these birds and learn about their survival skills in a harsh winter.

A Great Gray Feast

My dad and I arrived at Sax Zim Bog at 7:50 AM. The sun was just coming up in a bright blue sky, but it did not provide much warmth to the -20F day. However, without wind the day was quite pleasant and the conditions were perfect to find active owls. At 8:05 AM we found two active Great Gray Owls. The pair hunted 100 yards apart, perched on short, wooden power poles. In the typical behavior of owls, the closer owl swiveled its head back and forth, gathering the noises of its surroundings. Great Gray Owls are the largest owl in the world and their unique facial disc funnels sound directly into their ears like a satellite dish focuses a signal.  This adaptation allows them to be efficient predators able to locate rodents under the snow.

When the owl swiveled its head and focused its gaze I knew that the hunt was on. Soaring silently on a 5-foot wing span the owl plopped down in the snow 30 yard away. Its body was half in the snow and half out, and for 10 seconds it just sat in the snow giving the illusion that it was unsuccessful. But then the owl surged from the snow with a large vole grasped in its talons! I stood in awe at having witnessed the hunt first hand.

Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray Owl swivels its head to search for prey.
Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A distant Great Gray Owl hunts along a tree line.
Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray plunks into the snow in pursuit of a vole that tunneled below the surface. He caught it!
Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
The silent flight of a Great Gray Owl to its perch. Look at that camouflage!
Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray Owl holds onto a recently captured vole.
Great Gray Owl, Sax Zim Bog, Minnesota
A Great Gray Owl holds onto a recently captured vole.

Pouncing Northern Hawk Owls

As their name suggest, Northern Hawk Owls are an owl of the far north that migrate south in the winter. Because northern climates do not get much darkness in the summer these unique owls have adapted by hunting at all times of the day. We found our first hawk owl at 1PM, characteristically perched at the very top branches of a dead tree. After watching for awhile the owl zoomed to a perch further in the forest and then another perch even further out. They do this to find new and unsuspecting rodents to munch on.

When we saw the Northern Hawk Owl kill its first vole, I was struck by how much different their approach was than the Great Gray. It took off from a branch and then hovered (stooped) silently above the ground (thanks to modified wing edges that dampen sound) much like a hawk or falcon would do.  It rapidly came out of the stoop and crashed to the ground to catch its first dinner. 20 minutes later it exhibited the same behavior. It is amazing to think how many voles the Owls of Sax Zim Bog must kill on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis!

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog
This Northern Hawk Owl caught 2 voles as several photographers and I watched.

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog
A Northern Hawk owl speeds to its next perch like a speeding bullet.

Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog Northern Hawk Owl, Minnesota, Sax Zim Bog

A day at Sax Zim Bog can bring about AMAZING experiences, but please practice ethical photography of the residents that live there. Owls are very susceptible to the unethical practice of baiting. For the safety of the owls, please DO NOT bait them! Also, please give them their space as they make and consume kills and do not stay with an owl too long. Most of theses images were taken with an 800mm lens and thus were taken from a respectful distance. Doing these things will keep the owls safe and ensuring that you have the best day possible observing these amazing animals!

Birding on “Barrow-ed” Time

Utqiaġvik (Barrow), Alaska is the furthest north city in the United States, and just a few miles north of that on a small spit of land is Point Barrow where you can go no further north and still be on U.S. soil. At that point, the expanse of the ivory ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas stretches in front of you further than the eye can see. Looking south you will see no hills greater than a few feet tall – a tundra so flat that it seems like a wasteland. However, the tundra is fueled by perpetual sunlight for over 65 days each season and becomes an oasis for dozens of species of birds that come from multiple continents. With the flocks of birds come the flocks of birders to watch and observe their beauty and behavior under the midnight sun.  We birded from June 16th to the 20th, recorded total 41 species of birds (although I think we missed a few on our final list) and 9 “lifer” birds which we had never seen before.

Barrow, Utqiaġvik, Alaska, Bowhead Whale, Sun, Composite
The sun arches of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. This image was captured from 12AM – 4AM on June 19th.

I realize not all of you reading this article are birders, so you may be wondering, “why would you take the time, hassle, and money to travel to the furthest point in the U.S. just to look at birds”.  It’s because the birds are at their very best. You can think of this way : there are always cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and they are very beautiful to look at year around. However, during spring when they are in bloom the common cherry tree is transformed into an incredible spectacle. The birds in Barrow are the same – each is dressed to the nines in order to attract and breed with a female. They also show off behaviors and calls which you will see at no other time of the year.

Utqiaġvik, Tundra, Alaska
There are almost no hills or topography of any time in the tundra surrounding Barrow, Alaska.

The Snowy Owl

Barrow, Alaska was known as Ukpiaġvik before it was it was given its European name in 1826 . This tradtional name translates to “Place that we hunt for snowy owls“, and was given that because of the high densities of owls in the area. They are reliant on high densities of lemmings (small rodents) for food. Snowy Owl numbers wax-and-wane with the volatile population of lemmings, but when food is up, researchers have found as many as 72 lemmings at one time at a Snow Owl nest!

The first owl we saw was the whitest owl (perhaps even bird) that I’ve ever seen. Typically Snowy Owls have some black in their wings, but this bird was almost sheer white with a few specks of black. The lack of color is indicative of the age of the bird and sex. Males are whiter than females and older birds are whiter than young birds. We can conclude from those two facts that this incredibly beautiful individual is an old, adult male.

Utqiaġvik, Barrow, Alaska
A male snowy owl sits on the tundra outside of Utqiaġvik, Alaska

“The Eiders” and Other Waterfowl

Eiders are a family of sea-duck with four different species, and a circumpolar distribution. Each of the species is stunningly colored and have incredible plumage and sexual dimorphism (i.e., the males are dressy, the females are plain). Barrow provides relatively easy viewing of all four species of eiders in one place. We found Stellar’s, King, and Spectacled Eiders feeding in shallow ponds in the tundra. Each of them were paired and simply waiting for the snow to melt further, and the tundra to sprout before laying eggs. We observed Common Eider flying over the Chukchi sea on their way to different breeding grounds. Many other species of ducks and geese were found throughout the tundra to compliment the eiders.

Stellar's Eider, Utqiaġvik, Alaska
A male Stellar’s Eider stands in stark contrast to the female behind him.
King Eider, Alaska
The King Eider has an incredible face and plumage!
Spectacled Eider, Alaska, Utqiaġvik
The Spectacled Eider is well named – you can see that monocle on this beautiful male’s face.

Shorebirds

Shorebirds in Barrow have their tuxedos on, are wearing Rolexes, and are ready to do whatever it takes to impress their female counterparts. They are a far cry from the drab, brown birds they become any other time of the year. The breeding displays vary from puffing out chest feathers, strutting with quivering wingtips, or taking to the air and flying high for all of the females to see. While we were there, the most vocal were the Pectoral Sandpipers. Male birds flew over their territories with chests feathers puffed out and made an indescribable-in-words galunking sound.

There was much more to see than just the breeding behavior of the shorebirds, and probably the most entertaining of these small birds were the phalaropes. Both Red-necked and Red Phalaropes feed by standing in shallow water and spinning in circles to stir up the bottom with their feet.  They push their bill and head under the water to pick up their unsuspecting and confused prey. Their behavior reminds me of a dog chasing its tale, and its very hard not to smile when watching them.

Point Barrow

North of Barrow is Point Barrow. This small spit of land has been used for millennia to capture whales and sea mammals for subsistence by the Iñupiaq  people, and I was astounded by the number of Bowhead Whale skulls and bones along the beach (just for the record I 100% support this subsistence and cultural way of life). The bones helped answer some of the questions I had about whale structure and morphology.

Baleen is a key feature of non-predatory whales, but I’ve never quite understood how it was arranged in the mouth.  In the jawbones of a couple of whale skulls, I saw that multiple (>50) plates of baleen lay parallel to each other on the left and right side of the mouth. Their arrangement allows the tongue to slide between the plates to push the water out and capture their food.

Baleen, Bowhead Whale, Alaska, Barrow
The baleen of a Bowhead Whale has hairy edges that works to capture food as the tongue is pushed up and water is pressed out.
Baleen, Bowhead Whale, Barrow, Alaska
Many plates of baleen lie together in this skull of this Bowhead Whale giving insight into the function of the baleen to capture food.

The many bones along the beach also put into perspective just how huge Bowhead Whales are. Jawbones may reach 13 feet in length, the  vertebrae can be 20 inches or more wide, and the ribs can be 10 feet long. These are incredibly huge animals that must have been difficult to capture with seal-skin boats and bone-tipped spears. But somehow, in the face of this immense challenge, that is what the ancient Iñupiaq were able to accomplish.

Barrow, Alaska, Bowhead Whale, Vertebrae
The vertebrae of Bowhead Whales are huge!
Point Barrow, Sea Ice, Arctic Ocean
My wife, Kassie, and I on the edge of the Arctic Ocean at Point Barrow.

Across the expanse of the sea-ice were cigar-shaped black specks. Most of the specks turned out to be seals. These seals provide a food source for humans and bears. I believe the most common species we observed were the Spotted Seal, but three other species may are present in the region.  Although we scanned the ice pack for Polar Bears, there were none to be found.

Barrow-ed Time

In the summer, Barrow is the city that never sleeps. We were amazed at the amount of activity at all hours of the day throughout the community that can be attributed to the never setting sun. 24 hours of daylight ensured that the birds were active and visible during all parts of the day. We “Barrow-ed” our time schedule by staying up until 2AM or later on all of the nights we were in town. After four days we were exhausted, but thrilled to had a glimpse of this incredible area and the birds it holds.

Barrow, Umiaq, umiak
The frame of a traditional boat, an umiaq, leans against a building outside of Barrow.
Barrow, Alaska
Jawbone arches offer tourists a place to take picture.
Barrow, Alaska, Midnight Sun, Composite
The midnight sun swings over the Chukchi sea on June 19th. In Barrow, there are 65 days that the sun never sets.
Muktuk, Barrow, Pickled
Muktuk is the traditional way to prepare Bowhead Whale. We had the incredible opportunity to try pickled muktuk pictured on the left. It was very delicious! The black rind is the skin of the whale, and the white part if the fat.

Species list (some likely missing) from June 16 – 20, 2017:

  1. Snow Bunting,
  2. Greater Scaup,
  3. Red-necked Phalarope,
  4. Glacous Gull,
  5. Pomeraine Jaeger,
  6. White-fronted Goose,
  7. Semipalmated Sandpiper,
  8. Long-tailed Duck,
  9. Red Phalarope,
  10. American Golden Plover,
  11. Pectoral Sandpiper,
  12. Short-billed Dowitcher,
  13. Cackling Goose,
  14. Dunlin,
  15. Arctic Tern,
  16. Pacific Loon,
  17. Semi-palmated Plover,
  18. Northern Pintail,
  19. Lesser Scaup,
  20. Lapland Longspur,
  21. Savannah Sparrow,
  22. Greather white-fronted Goose,
  23. Pectoral Sandpiper,
  24. Dowitcher,
  25. Raven,
  26. Western Sandpiper,
  27. King Eider,
  28. Stellar’s Eider,
  29. Spectacled Eider,
  30. Dunlin,
  31. Green-winged Teal,
  32. Northern Shovelor,
  33. Tundra Swan,
  34. Parasitic Jaeger,
  35. Red-throated Loon,
  36. Sabine’s Gull,
  37. Snow Goose,
  38. Black Scoter,
  39. Ruddty Turnstone,
  40. Baird’s Sandpiper,
  41. Common Eider.

 

Dayboat of Wonders in Glacier Bay National Park

A couple of weekends ago I had the opportunity to tour Glacier Bay National Park with Hoonah’s 5th and 6th grade class. The trip was the culmination of their “Plumes of Glacier Bay” curriculum where they had been studying the species of birds within the park. As an avid birder I was thrilled to bring these 16, rambunctious kids on an ecology trip into the park on the “Dayboat”. The boat travels into the park to pick up travelers and provides an 8.5 hour, 130+ mile cruise to tidewater glaciers with opportunities to view tons of wildlife.

Marjorie Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, Calving
Marjorie Glacier at the head of Glacier Bay National Park calves into the ocean.
Sea Otter, Glacier Bay National Park
A Sea Otter mother floats with its ups in the cold water of Glacier Bay.

Its not always (one might say rarely) sunny in Glacier Bay. The cold waters and moist air cause rain and fog to form quickly within the park. However, we started out our day under high clouds with small patches of blue sky.  Just after launching, we encountered some choppy water in the passage out of Bartlett Cove. Our on-board park ranger, Jenny, explained that the bottom of the ocean had striations in the sediment from the receding glacier that pushed the water up, often making it choppier than the wind would merit. After 45 minutes of cruising at 20 knots, our first stop along the way was at South Marble Island. This small island offers refuge to nesting Black-legged Kittiwakes, Tufted Puffins, and other colonial sea birds looking to nest away from predators. It also has huge haul-outs of Stellars’s Sealions. The gigantic animals that I like to call “sea grizzlies” because of their immense size (up to 2,000 pounds), lay on the rocks in the sunshine like sausages.  The dominant males sat with back arched and head erect. Their enormous size compared to the others around them made it easy to see why they were the boss.

Our boat cut through the water past South Marble Island, and we moved up the fjord. As we did, the mountains became more jagged and covered in snow. At the mouth of Glacier Bay most the mountains had been covered ice during the last glacial advance which rounded them off over time, but the terrain became more jagged as we moved past mountain tops untouched by the glaciers.  An exception to the jagged mountains was the round, granite dome named “Gloomy Knob”.  On that granite dome were well manicured lawns of grass with sporadic cottonwoods growing in the crevices. The lawns were kept short by overwintering Mountain Goats who grazed the pastures. Just after the spring thaw is the best time to watch the goats, and I think we counted 20 of them on Gloomy Knob. Many of them were feeding their kids, and we got some insight into the bonding of goats with their mothers – one made a spectacle by climbing onto its mothers back.

Gloomy Knob, Mountain Goat, Glacier Bay
A young kid stands on its mother’s back at Gloomy Knob in Glacier Bay

The goats were not the only four-legged mammals on Gloomy Knob. High up in the granite cliffs we spotted a family of four Coastal Brown Bears. They lounged on the rocks, sleeping, perhaps 1,000 feet above our heads. During our passing they roused and moved along the ridgeline. They even passed by a goat on the ledge below them. Although the grizzlies took a look at their potential meal, the Mountain Goat seemed to know it was safe from the predators above, as it never moved a muscle.

Gloom Knob, Coastal Brown Bear, Grizzly, Mountain Goat
A family of grizzlies looks at a goat below them.

Tidewater Glaciers

Sixty-five miles from where we started in Bartlett Cove we finally reached the end of the park. Marjorie Glacier stood in front of us like icy walls. The glacier face is about 350 feet tall and extends nearly a mile from left to right. In many of the pictures, you can see pin-sized Harbor Seals with their pups on the ice flows to lend the glacier some size perspective. Two times the glacier let go of new ice bergs by “calving”. The roar was like thunder of an approaching storm. The glacier, which is currently 21 miles long, has retracted 65 miles. In 1750, it was responsible for pushing the Huna Tlingit from their homeland.  Since the retreat has happened so quickly, there are many studies within the park boundaries to understand how recolonization of rock surfaces occurs. Also, the land around the glacier is springing back up from the weight of the ice in a process known as isostatic rebound. The land rises almost an inch a year which may cause river drainages to change and coast resources like clam beds to come out of the water.

Reid Glacier
The huge face of Reid Glacier near the head of Glacier Bay
Harbor Seals, Tidewater Glacier, Marjorie Glacier
Harbor Seals float in front of Marjorie Glacier.

The students gave the whole boat a treat by performing traditional Tlingit songs at the glacier. Their pounding drums mixed with the grandeur of the scenery for a truly memorable end to the day.  The trip into Glacier Bay was an incredible introduction to this vast and wild park. I look forward to the day when I return for a more detailed look at its beauty.

One of the students plays a drums and sings on the boat near Marjorie Glacier.
The students sing and dance on the boat to traditional Tlingit songs.
Our student group at the head of Glacier Bay National Park.
I was amazed by the lines carved in this rock by the glacier.
A pioneering tree starts to recolonize a the bare rock of this glaciated peninsula. Its possible that the land became available to the tree through isostatic rebound.
A halo from the sun burns through the clouds over the mountains of Glacier Bay.

The Hooligans of Haines

The Great Hooligan Run

Alaska is known for its runs of salmon, but each year in the spring an equally impressive and ecologically important run of fish ascend the streams of Southeast Alaska and as far north as Norton Sound. The small, silvery fish, provide bountiful food for birds, bears, and people and signify that spring is here. I had the opportunity to observe the abundance of life that greet the Hooligan in the Chilkoot River, just north of Haines, Alaska.

Thousands of gulls, dozens of eagles, and tens of Stellars Sealions gather at the mouth of the Chilkoot River to feed on Hooligan.

The Chilkoot River system where I stood watching schools of Hooligan is surrounded in spectacular scenery. The 70 yard-wide river valley is dotted with large boulders which were deposited there by retreating glaciers.  High mountains that rise along each shore are covered with snow and feed the cold-water system for several months, until mid-summer.  During April and May, its shallow, clear waters, house thousands of shimmering gray shapes. Hooligan (Thaleichthys pacificus, also known as “eulachon” or “candle fish”) return by the hundreds of thousands to deposit their eggs.

The Ecology of Hooligan

Hooligan are anadromous fish, meaning they spend most of their adult life in the ocean, but return to freshwater to breed. The most well-known example of anadromous fish are salmon species, however Hooligan do not necessarily return to the same river like salmon do.  The timing of their spawning run is determined by water temperature and hence shifts later into the year as you move from Southeast Alaska up to the western coast. After breeding, a majority of Hooligan die, but there are some fish that return to the river. Why only some die after spawning is just one of the many things that are not known about this fish. For instance biologists are also unsure what effects the size of the run which has varied highly in recent years. In the Chilkoot River, the run was estimated at 300,000 in 2015 but >1.8 million in 2016. That is quite a difference! After talking to the locals, it sounds like this year’s run in the Chilkoot was strong and echoed the strong run of 2016.

Hooligan Run, Alaska, Haines, Chilkoot
Thousands of Hooligan swim in the shallow waters of the Chilkoot River.

The Effect of Hooligan

You do not really have to see the effect of Hooligan to understand their importance to the ecosystem – closing your eyes and listening will probably tell you the story that needs to be told. Envision the sound of the lapping surf at your feet and the hum of the wind past your ears. Now layer in the raucous sound of thousands of gulls from multiple species raising from the beaches in an excited chorus. Add the grunting, bold, bellow of an adult, bull, sealion. The chir and ki-ki-ki of many bald eagles. The whistle of a goldeneye’s wingbeats. This is the audio picture of the Hooligan run and I was astounded by its magnitude.

Hooligan, Chilkoot, Haines, Alaska
A rainbow high-lights the amazing scenery around Haines. Gulls, Eagles and Stellars Sealions feed on Hooligan at the mouth of the Chilkoot River.

It was obvious from watching the behavior of various animals that they had mastered the art of catching an easy meal and nutritious meal. Hooligan are an important food source because of their high energy value. Dried Hooligan are so oily they were traditionally burned by Tlingits as candles. One of the most impressive behaviors was how Stellar’s Sealions herded the fish against the shore. Working together the sealions breached from the water in a wall to spook the fish upstream. The breaches ocurred in synchronized sequences, with the whole body of the sealion coming out of the waters, followed shortly by another individual. If the maneuver was successful a large school of finned-dinners would be pinned against the shore and a feeding frenzy ensued. Swirling waters and flippers were all that was visible of the fast-moving sealions as they snatched up fish below the water’s surface. The gulls were equally effective at catching Hooligan and dove repeatedly into the water, coming up with a fish frequently. After successful dives, the fish protruded from the gull’s mouth and were consumed on the wing . It’s amazing to think they could swallow them at all! The bodies of the fish were not the only thing being consumed. Countless eggs (they lay up to 30,000 per female!) were strewn across the beach, stranded as the tide went out. I watched a tiny, Least Sandpiper scoop up mouth-fulls of the eggs, providing a high-calorie caviar snack.

Hooligan, Chilkoot River, Haines, Alaska
A Bonaparte’s gull consume a Hooligan on the wing moments after snatching it from the river.

I wish that my time at the Chilkoot River could have been longer. Two evenings observing it just did not seem like enough! What any one-person takes away from an experience can vary vastly. My viewpoint is one a naturalist and scientist looking to sponge knowledge and learn from what I observe. I hope that you, the reader, can see it some day to see what you learn. Alaska is known for its larger-than-life wildlife spectacles, and in my opinion the Hooligan run and the abundance of life it creates is an experience that should be seen, felt, and heard by anyone that appreciates the wild places of earth.

Sources (also used in hyperlinks through the article):

  • http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=eulachon.main
  • http://traditionalanimalfoods.org/fish/searun-fish/page.aspx?id=6448
  • http://www.subsistence.adfg.state.ak.us/techpap/tp213.pdf
  • https://www.afsc.noaa.gov/Publications/ProcRpt/PR%202006-12.pdf
  • http://www.alaskapublic.org/2016/04/28/hooligan-make-strong-return-to-chilkoot-and-chilkat/

The Pine Marten Transplants of Chichagof Island

When I think of the American Pine Marten (Martes americana), it invokes an image of giant, rotund spruces and hemlocks in an old growth forest. In my mind, the lithe body of a Pine Marten scurries around in the branches perhaps a hundred feet from the forest floor in search of a red squirrel or bird’s nest. A small squeak indicates that the small mustelid has connected with its prey. This vision could be considered “classic” in the fact that martens are strongly associated with mature, old growth forests (Greg 1995). In fact, their dependence on old growth forests is so strong that traditional logging methods have been cited as a driver of large scale declines of marten populations (Davies 1983). In some regions of Southeast Alaska marten are still abundant, and in general the Tongass National Forest offers great habitat for marten. However, they are most often found on the mainland, and I was told by a friend that they were introduced to Chichagof Island by people. That tidbit of information intrigued me, and as I dove into Pine Marten history on Chichagof I was very interested to find out a marten I crossed paths with is a descendant from a small introduction of intentional transplants.

DSC_5516

Transplanting wildlife to new areas in Alaska has been going on since the Russians began to settle  here (Paul 2009). Frequently transplants happened on the Aleutian Islands or the islands of Southeast Alaska and often the incentive revolved around economic opportunity. A well-known example of this is the transplant of Blue Fox to the Aleutians so they could be farmed and harvested for trapping.  The fox were responsible for extirpating several species of birds from the islands.  Over the years many species including Caribou, Sitka Blacktail, Mountain Goats and Elk have been introduced to new areas throughout Alaska. The first martens were introduced to Chichagof Island in 1949 to create a population for trapping (in fact Pine Martens are still Alaska’s largest fur market earning 1-2 million annually (Alaska Department of Fish and Game)). By 1954, 21 marten had been introduced to the Island and despite the low number of starting individuals, their numbers climbed rapidly in their new environment. It is estimated in 2006 over 2,200 marten were trapped on Chichagof Island. It’s a remarkably successful population here!

Blue Fox
It was fascinating to see this account from the early 1900s of Blue Fox farming. At the time it was implemented as a branch of the USDA. You can read the full text at : https://archive.org/details/bluefoxfarmingin1350ashb

Since transplants can have negative effects on resident populations, did the transplant of marten to Chichagof Island impact populations there? Anecdotally I have been told that Dusky Grouse (Dendragapus obscurus) numbers have declined on the island and that Northern Flying Squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus) are not as abundant as they used to be.  Certainly each of these prey items are consumed by the martens. Buskirk (1983) found birds and squirrels made up a strong majority of the marten’s diet in Southcentral Alaska, but that voles, mice, and shrews were the most important items in the diet.  On Chichagof Island, the diet patterns are the same, although Ben-David et al. (1997) found high variation in the autumn and the presence of salmon and crab.  In the summer a marten’s diet may be made up 80% of birds and squirrels. Marten populations are normally not very large and hence would be unlikely to strongly influence prey, but Chichagof Island holds the highest abundance in the region (Flynn and Ben-David 2004). With these high populations and a diet favoring birds and squirrels, is it is possible that marten populations on Chichagof Island exert a top-down pressure on their prey? I believe based on the effect of being a successful transplant makes it it possible. However, I can find no data on the population trends of Dusky Grouse or Flying Squirrels on Chichagof Island and there are many other factors at play. For instance,  Dusky Grouse may find protection from predators in old growth  and flying squirrels are likely to benefit from old growth structure. Hence, removal of old growth by logging may lead to a reduced population. Rather than conjecture on a speculative answer, I will put it out there that a graduate student and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game could pair up on this venture.

I will leave you with a description of my encounter with an American Pine Marten. On October 16th, Hoonah received measurable snow before Fairbanks, Alaska.  The 14 inches of snow that lay on the ground was the first time Southeast Alaska had beat the Interior to snow in over 70 years. I started up my truck, my wife jumped in, and we headed out the road with the hope of photographing a bear in the snow. The lower elevations were slick and wet. 6 inches of slush lay heavy on the roads, but we made it the 10 miles to the turn towards False Bay. As we slowly climbed the pass the truck seemed to shrink into the ground as the snow levels rose. After only a couple of miles we were plowing snow with the bumper of the truck and it was evident that we would not go much further. The only catch was we could not find a place to turn around. On we drove hoping that our luck held out, when up the road we saw a small figure bound into the ditch. It plowed into a snow drift and then burst back out again. In a flash I was out with my camera clicking away. Pursing my lips I made small rodent sounds which intrigued the inquisitive creature. Turning its head rapidly it dove back into a snow bank and emerged a few feet away. To me it seemed as if the little fellow was simply enjoying the snow rather than doing anything too serious. He wove in and out of cover, posed for me and eventually bounded into the woods in search of greener (or whiter) pastures.

Pine Marten, American Pine Marten, Chichagof Island, Hoonah, Southeast Alaska, Martes americana
American Pine Marten on Chichagof Island near Hoonah, Alaska.

 

Cited:

R. Flynn and M. Ben-David. 2004. Abundance, prey availability and diets of American martens: implications for the design of old growth reserves in Southeast Alaska. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Grant final report. Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Ben-David, M., Flynn R.W., Schell D.M. 1997. Annual and seasonal changes in diets of martens: evidence from stable isotope analysis. Oecologia. 111:280-291.

Buskirk, S.W. 1983. The Ecology of Marten in Southcentral Alaska. Doctoral Disertation. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

http://www.biokids.umich.edu/critters/Dendragapus_obscurus/

Davis, Mark H. “Post-release movements of introduced marten.” The Journal of Wildlife Management (1983): 59-66.

Drew, G. 1995. WINTER HABITAT SELECTION BY AMERICAN MARTEN (Martesamericana) IN NEWFOUNDLAND: WHY OLD GROWTH?. Dissertation.

Paul, T. 2009. Game transplants in Alaska. Technical bulletin #4. 2nd Edition.

Schoen, J., Flynn R., Clark B. American Marten. Southeast Alaska Conservation Assessment. Chapter 6.5

Ashbrook, F.G. Blue Fox Farming in Alaska. Accessed : https://archive.org/details/bluefoxfarmingin1350ashb 10/27/2016

https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Alaska_Maritime/what_we_do/conservation.html

 

Why Do Whales Try To Fly?

Last week I was floating under gray skies and windless conditions on a whale-watching boat outside of Hoonah, Alaska.  We drifted with engines off while Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) fed around a rocky reef a hundred yards that was exposed by a shrinking tide. The distinct kee-kee-kee of hundreds of marbled murrelets, (Brachyramphus marmoratus, small pelagic birds) rang out around us and the bellow of sea lions droned from a distance green channel buoy. Towards that buoy an enormous nose broke through the surface and in a fraction of a second a mature Humpback Whale hung in the air with only the tips of its tail in the water. Its re-entry sent water far into the air with a crash. On its second breach I was ready and captured a series of shots as it arched into the water. My heart was racing as I soaked in what had just happened! Ultimately its leap from the water set my mind turning on why a whale would try to fly at all.

Mature Humpback Whales are gigantic creatures weighing between 45-50 tons (NOAA) and reaching up to 45 feet. I think Whitehead (1985) has it right when he states, “A Whale’s leap from the water is almost certainly the most powerful single action performed by any animal.” He found that a 12-m long adult humpback must travel at about 17 knots (3 times their normal cruising speed) to break the surface and expose at least 70% of their body. The energy required to thrust their entire body comes at an expense of energy, and begs to question about what they gain from it.  It is possible whales breach to communicate with others, to act aggressively towards another whale, to show strength, or to “play” (Whitehead 1985).

Humpback Whale Splash
A huge splash results from the breach of a humpback whale.

A lot of research on aerial behavior has tried to associate breaching with group dynamics. These studies have yielded interesting correlations. Whales breach more often in groups (Whitehead 1985). They were more likely to breach within 10km of another whale. Humpback whales surface activity (including multiple behaviors above surface) increases with group size and also occurred more with underwater vocalizations (Silber 1986). There also seems to behaviors which foreshadow breaching. For instance, breaching often comes after a tail lob. A tail lob is another visual and audio spectacle where the whale slaps its tail against the water.  Since breaching occurs more often in groups, these lends to the notion that it is a form of communication.

For some researchers, time spent on water results in findings that have little explanation. For instance, whales may breach more as wind speed rises (Whitehead 1985). Although support for why that would be is nearly impossible to determine, it has been shown that surface slaps can carry for several kilometers and the amount of sound created changes depending on what angle the whale strikes the water (Payne and McVay 1971, Deakos 2002 citing Watkins 1981). The distance that a breach can be heard is unknown, but it certainly surpasses the visual extent lending to the hypothesis that it is a form of communication, however, what message it conveys is unknown.

DSC_2066

By listening to whale vocalizations (for which humbacks are famous) that occur leading up to breaches, researchers found there is a relationship between the amount of vocalizations and breaches. Male to male interaction and above water behavior were often correlated with increased vocalization between males (Silber 1986). It is likely these vocalizations are aggressive and that males are plying for position or to mate with a female. The subsequent breach is probably an “exclamation” (Whitehead 1985) on the underwater vocalization rather than an attempt to harm the other whale during the breach.  Certainly it would demonstrate to a female the prowess and strength of the male (Whitehead 1985).

Insight into breaching behavior may be gained from researching other percussive behaviors. Deakos (2002) found that pectoral slapping varies with age class, sex, and social position. Females were likely to slap pectoral fins on the surface to indicate readiness to mate, while males often did it to compete with other males without full-on combat. Pectoral slapping was shown to be frequent in young whales and is likely an important piece of their development (I was fortunate to see a calf breaching last year).   However, pectoral slapping and frequent breaches from young and feisty individuals taper off as the whales mature and get older (Whitehead 1985). This likely means it not a form of play for older animals. From these findings in pectoral displays we likely assume that a breach from male, female or young calf means separate things.

Humpback Whale Pec Slap
The same humpback whale that breached also showed off pectoral slapping. The behavior went on for 5 or 10 minutes after the breach.
Humpback Whale Pec Slap
The resulting splash of a pec-slap from a humpback whale.

My review of the science and literature surrounding whale behavior is stumped by the same issue that plagues the field : the true question of “why” a whale breaches is illusive because “what” they are trying to convey is likely different for each whale.  Much like the way that we clap our hands different at sporting events, golf tournaments, at a wedding, or after a concert, whales likely use the clap of the water to communicate different feelings.  Answers are relegated to vaguery due to the inherent difficulty of researching an underwater animal. I can only conclude that whales breach to communicate.  It seems most plausible that humpback whales and other species breach to add emphasis to a message or to get a point across.

Cited:

Deakos. (2002). Humpback Whale (Megaptera Novaengliae) Commication : The context and possible functions of pec-slapping behavior on the Hawai’ian wintering grounds. Thesis.

Payne, R. S., & McVay, S. (1971). Songs of humpback whales. Science, 173, 585-597

Silber, G. 1986. “The relationship of social vocalizations to surface behavior and aggression in the Hawaiian humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)”. Canadian Journal of Zoology. 64(10): 2075-2080

Watkins, William A. (1981). “Activities and underwater sounds of fin whales [Balaenoptera physalus].” Scientific Reports of the Whales Research Institute (Japan).

Whitehead, H. 1985. “Why Whales Leap”. Scientific American.