ANCHORAGE - Alaska marin-ers are being asked to keep track of cruising killer whales this week to find out how many swim near the state in the winter.
If enough people scan fjords, channels and icy bays, the count will produce an unprecedented large-scale snapshot of cold-season killer whale distribution.
People should report in even if they do not see whales, said Andrew Trites, count coordinator and executive director of the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"We suspect that there are places where the whales are concentrated, and if those are identified, we can send out the experts," Trites said. "We're hoping to get a head start by having local people on the water and keeping an eye out for us."
The count started Saturday and runs though Friday. It's modeled on the Christmas Bird Count census sponsored for decades by the Audubon Society.
Anyone who ventures within sight of Alaska's seas can participate, including mariners, fishermen, ferry passengers, barge crews, tugboat captains, pilots and beachcombers. Forms have been distributed to Alaska harbormasters and can be found online.
"We want anyone, from one day to all seven days," Trites said. "If they're going to be out on the water, we'd like to know where they went and if they saw any killer whales."
Biologist Craig Matkin said a hydrophone in Resurrection Bay near Seward has been collecting killer whale calls this winter - mostly chatter by fish-eating whales, Matkin said.
During a three-day count last summer, 160 people filed reports, including 40 sightings of whales, almost half in Southeast.
Biologists have been working for nearly two decades to identify individual whales and understand their family relationships and eating habits. A handful of researchers work at any given time, almost always in spring, summer and fall.
"Most biologists are fair-weather biologists," Trites said. "They love to go out in the summer. We want to find out about where the whales are in winter."
Trites, a longtime marine mammal specialist at the University of British Columbia, has been a leading investigator into the Steller sea lion decline off Alaska. He was a key scientist looking into the hypothesis that pollock amounts to junk food for sea lions when compared to forage fish.
For more on the killer whale count and to report sightings, go to www.alaskakillerwhales.org