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Winter whales and other tales

Science series features humpbacks, northern lights, volcanoes and salmon

Posted: Sunday, February 02, 2003

About two weeks ago, Jan Straley was sailing Sitka Sound, photographing as many as 40 whales feeding in the cold waters near Southeast's outer coast.

While many humpbacks have left the region for the winter, the marine mammals she saw still have time to head south to breed in warmer waters.

"They can get to Hawaii in a month in time for the mating season," Straley said from her office at the University of Alaska Southeast's Sitka campus. "It's a staggered migration."

Straley, a marine biology professor, is the first of four University of Alaska scientists talking about their areas of expertise during the Science for Alaska lecture and slide-show series, which begins Monday. The free programs will run at 7:30 p.m. Mondays in February at Centennial Hall.

Other topics are "Exploring the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis" on Feb. 10, "Spying on Volcanoes from Space" on Feb. 17 and "Linking Alaska's Landscape to Salmon Populations" on Feb. 24. The programs are sponsored by the University of Alaska and the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation.

"We have very exciting topics and there's great visuals," said Kevin Myers, a spokesman for the University of Alaska Southeast. "It's a great free night out and you learn something in the process."

Straley has studied the population dynamics, feeding ecology and social structure of humpback whales for more than two decades. She worked as the whale biologist for Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve from 1988 to 1990 and continues to collaborate with park biologists. She and others produced a joint catalog of more than 1,000 different whales from Southeast and a combined database.

Straley said her program will give people an overview of what's known about humpbacks, one of the most common whales in Southeast waters.

"It's going to be a real basic primer on humpback whales in Alaska, where do they go and who they are," she said.

Southeast is one big marine buffet line for humpbacks, which feed on small fish and zooplankton during their stay. They store the food as fat for their annual journey to Hawaii where they breed and calve. Young whales follow their mothers back to Southeast, continuing the link between the two regions.

Whales are most often spotted in Juneau waters during the summer, although it's not unusual to see them in the winter. Research has shown a connection between winter sightings and over-wintering herring.

Researching whales is time-consuming.

"They spend most of their lives in an environment we know very little about," Straley said. "We need a year-round perspective, not just trying to understand what they do for two weeks or three weeks or a month every summer."

Researchers track whales in part by using photographs showing identifiable marks. About 1,000 humpbacks feed in Southeast in the summer and most appear to spend winters in Hawaii. But no one knows what all of them do, Straley said.

"I get whales that show up in Sitka Sound that I only see in the fall and the winter. I don't know where they are the rest of the year," she said.

And some never leave.

"People tell me they have overwintering whales," she said.

• Ed Schoenfeld can be reached at eschoenfeld@juneauempire.com.

Did you know?

Lecture series

Science for Alaska lectures run at 7:30 p.m. Mondays in February at Centennial Hall. The free programs are sponsored by the University of Alaska and the Alaska Science and Technology Foundation.

• Feb. 3: "Gentle Giants, Alaska's Humpback Whales," with UAS-Sitka marine biology professor Jan Straley.

• Feb. 10: "Exploring the Secrets of the Aurora Borealis," lecture by Syun Akasofu, director of the International Arctic Research Center and UAF geophysics professor.

• Feb. 17: "Spying on Volcanoes from Space," lecture by Ken Dean, research associate professor, UAF Geophysical Institute.

• Feb. 24: "Linking Alaska's Landscape to Salmon Populations," lecture by Patricia Heiser, assistant professor, UAA Department of Geology.



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