Whale overwinters in Juneau waters

Humpback, nicknamed 'Crator,' becomes first in recent years to opt out of oceanic migration to Hawaii

Posted: Friday, April 02, 2010

Juneau waters had a new resident this winter.

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Photo By Jay Beedle
Photo By Jay Beedle

For the first time in recent years, researchers, with the help of volunteers, documented through photo identification that a humpback whale overwintered in local waters.

John Moran, a research fisheries biologist with the Auke Bay Laboratories, said sightings of humpbacks in Stephens Passage and Favorite Channel are not unheard of in the whale viewing "off season" - December through March - and researchers have theorized that some whales do not make the 30-day voyage to Hawaii.

But this year, they proved it.

"People have said she overwintered, but this time we documented, with Jay (Beedle's) help, that she couldn't possibly have made the trip."

The "she" is whale No. 924, more affectionately known as "Crator," named for the hard-to-miss, crater-like scar on the underside of her fluke.

"That's one reason that we can be sure she stayed," Moran said. "You can't miss her, even from really far away. She's had that scar for twenty years. It doesn't seem to slow her down."

Moran said the finding was a side discovery made while conducting a more broad study examining humpback whale predation rates on herring in Lynn Canal. To answer these questions, researchers have to be out observing and recording the whales' activity.

Jan Straley, a researcher and assistant professor with the University of Alaska Southeast in Sitka, said the key is in the frequency.

"We have photographed them twice within sixty days because we know it takes at least a month to make the oceanic migration," she said. "And we've confirmed that fact by working collectively with other researchers, and through satellite tracking."

In the case of Crator, it took cooperation.

Jay Beedle, co-owner of Harv and Marv's Outback Alaska, added to the effort by spending hours on the water pursuing his photographic passion: Whales.

Because of Beedle's images, Moran was able to fit the final piece into the puzzle.

But why Crator stayed in Juneau waters remains a mystery.

"The theory is that all the breeding takes place in Hawaii," Moran said. "She had a calf this year, so maybe she's taking a year off. That calf was maybe a big burden, so maybe she decided to skip the trip to Hawaii."

Beedle thinks she just likes it here.

"I think she didn't want to go," he said. "There's lots of food here and she's happy."

Food is absolutely not an issue, Moran said. Schools of herring move in and hunker down during winter months with high concentrations forming out near Amalga Harbor and off Eagle Beach.

"(They) form this aggregation down deep - 150-300 feet down - so they're away from most predators," he said. "They're trying to save energy in the deeper water, but it makes for a nice target for humpback whales."

Moran thinks Crator has figured out an effective hunting strategy for these schools of herring, and finds no reason to leave as a result.

Much like a fisherman with his favorite fishing hole, she just keeps coming back.

"We don't know exactly how she's catches them, but it works for her," he said.

Moran theorizes it could be with the help of another whale they call Auke Bay Mom (No. 1160), who also recently weaned a calf.

"These are both females who had calves, they're always together, both weaned their calves at the same time," Moran said.

It's possible the two formed a bond, a friendship of sorts, he said.

Despite the fact Crator seems to prefer Juneau during an unusual time of year, compared to other humpbacks, she doesn't stay here year-round.

Straley said Crator, like all humpbacks, migrates.

"She's definitely been spotted in other areas of Northern Southeast, like Fredrick Sound," she said.

Straley stressed, however, this discovery is one of a much larger web.

"Really, to tell the big story, it's going to take more than just sighting a whale in one area or one geographic location," she said. "The bigger story is that they are migratory and that they move. And it's important to know this, and it's important to make those connections."

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at 523-2271 or abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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