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SITKA - A comprehensive catalog of the humpback whale population of Southeast Alaska is now just a quick click away.
Whale biologist Jan Straley and research technician Jennifer Cedarleaf have created an online guide of the humpback whales of Southeastern Alaska at www.alaskahumpbacks.org.
The site gives viewers a chance to find and learn about the whales they may have seen after a day on Southeast waters, and to contribute their own photographs to the site.
Straley said the website has already received many visits since its launch earlier this month. She believes it will encourage more people to get involved in learning about humpbacks, and build on the whale research already collected in Southeast waters.
"It engages people in the stewardship of the marine resource, and helps people understand about what whales are here, why they're here, and how long they've been here," Straley said. "It's information for people to learn about humpback whales."
The site was created with the help of 16 different research groups. Three contributed most of the photos: J. Straley Investigations, University of Alaska and Glacier Bay National Park. Other collaborators include NOAA, Cascadia Research Collective, the Whale Trust and the Alaska Whale Foundation.
Straley said the idea for the site came out of a collaboration with the National Park Service to create a printed catalog of the area's whales over 10 years ago. The book was a hit, but is no longer available.
"A lot of people still ask for the catalog and it's out of print," said Straley. "It makes sense to have something that's more dynamic, that we can add photos to, as opposed to having a print catalog that is out of date almost as soon as you print it."
The online guide can incorporate photos as they are sent in, said Straley, and she and Cedarleaf are able to add new information on whale research as it develops.
The 1,900 humpback whales identified on the website were observed in coastal waters from British Columbia to Southeast Alaska. Straley estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 humpbacks are in the region, which means the website has captured 20 to nearly 60 percent of these on camera.
Cedarleaf built the website from the ground up.
"I knew nothing about websites when I started this," she said. She worked at it on and off, while doing other research projects, and now, after two years, it's nearly done.
The website guides you through the process of entering your own photos in the "Contribute Sightings" section. If you want to match the whale you photographed to the photos on file you can follow the link to the "Fluke ID Catalog."
One page tells you how to identify a humpback whale by matching photographs of the flukes.
"Matching humpback whale flukes can be simple, and it can be quite challenging," the site says. "Hopefully after reading this short article you will have great success in matching your photographs to our catalog."
Whales are identified by features in the underside of their fluke, categorized and given their own number on the Web page. Distinguishing features - such as injuries and scratches - can also help identify a whale.
The site has a lot to offer the casual observer as well as the avid whale enthusiast, with articles on research, general information and numerous stunning photos of whales in action.
But it's Straley's and Cedarleaf's hope that the site will become a valuable tool for them as well, to get a more complete picture of what's going on with the humpback whale population of Southeast.
"There was a whale we hadn't seen in a while," Cedarleaf said. "We had a photograph from a cruise ship passenger, and it was that whale (Straley) hadn't seen for five or six years. She thought it had died. And there it was. It gives us more information: people are on the water every day of the summer, and we aren't out there. It's really helpful for us for sighting histories."
Cedarleaf said some kinks still need to be worked out. Internet Explorer, for some reason, is the best browser for using certain features of the website, she said, but she is determined to make it work as well with other browsers. Among the features they want to add is one that keeps a record of how many "hits" the site gets.
But both Straley and Cedarleaf can see the potential appeal of the website, given the general popularity of humpback whales with visitors and residents.
"People are interested in humpbacks because there are so many of them here," Cedarleaf said. "They breach, they show their flukes almost every time they dive. They're more interactive than other whales can be."
The project was funded by an Alaska Native-Hawaiian Indian grant from the U.S. Department of Interior, and included volunteer work by Mt. Edgecumbe High School students.