Whales ignore winter, linger near Sand Point

Posted: Monday, January 15, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The community of Sand Point has been hosting summertime visitors for an extended stay but no one is complaining in the Shumagin Island community.

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Humpback whales that normally head for breeding grounds in tropical waters have been patrolling back and forth in front of city docks and vantage points from the city's hills.

Cherilyn Lundgren, 34, has turned into a whale junkie, watching the animals playing and feeding.

"It's been very interesting," she said. "A good show. Many of the elders are saying they don't recall anything like this."

The Shumagin Islands are off the tip of the Alaska Peninsula about 570 miles southwest of Anchorage. Sand Point is on Popof Island and looks across a channel to Unga Island.

Humpbacks in the summer often are spotted by commercial fishermen putting down nets in more open water. Whales in the channel are rare.

"This close into down, you don't see them coming into the channel very often," Lundgren said.

Though a few humpbacks stick around Southeast Alaska and even Kodiak Island, most undertake long-distance migrations during the fall to temperate or tropical wintering areas where they mate and reproduce, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

"There will be times when you will find whales in the winter months in other parts of the state," said Briana Witteveen, a University of Alaska Fairbanks marine mammal research assistant based in Kodiak. "This is the first time I've heard of it in the Shumagin Islands area."

The Sand Point whales showed up in December, stuck around for the holidays and were still there last week.

At first, observers thought they might be fin whales, Lundgren said. However, fin whales are larger and don't show their flukes when they dive.

"All of their surface characteristics are that of a humpback whale," Lundgren said.

Gray whales were another possibility, Witteveen said, but they generally migrate through and do not hang around, she said.

Beth Stewart, resource manager for the Aleutians East Borough, said whales likely are in town for a feeding fest. Sea lions have been on hand too and probably are there for the same reason, "a big ball of herring or a big school of capelin," she said.

"This is really unusual," she said. "It's a sign that there's feed around."

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