Summer humpbacks set record at Glacier Bay

Program helps keep ships from hitting endangered whales

Posted: Friday, October 19, 2007

ANCHORAGE - Visitors to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve were in for a treat this summer: A record number of humpback whales were sighted either in or near Glacier Bay.

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The 3.3-million-acre park is increasingly popular with humans, too. Last year, the park welcomed 413,000 park visitors, 54,000 more than the previous year.

The popularity of the park is testing measures updated this year to keep whales away from boat traffic. The vessel management program is working well, park officials say, with no whales reported struck by boats inside the park this summer.

Humpbacks were hunted nearly to extinction. They have been listed as endangered for more than three decades and have been protected internationally since 1966.

There are now an estimated 30,000 humpback whales worldwide, with 6,000 to 8,000 in the North Pacific, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

An estimated 1,000 humpbacks are in northern Southeast Alaska waters, and the North Pacific population is growing by up to 7 percent a year, said Jan Straley, a marine biologist with the University of Alaska Southeast.

From early June to the end of August, 161 individual humpback whales were identified by their tail flukes.

"It gets more and more gratifying all the time," said Chris Gabriele, a whale biologist at Glacier Bay. "We have mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers."

There were no reports of boat strikes this summer, but fatal boat strikes do happen.

The vessel management program requires boat operators to attend a 20-minute orientation in which they view a film and talk to a ranger about how to safely navigate around the whales.

Another component of the program is to get boats to slow down: A study found whales were more likely to survive a collision when vessels were going less than 14 knots.

The National Park Service put observers aboard almost every cruise ship coming into Glacier Bay this summer to gather information on how close whales come to ships. The data will be used to assess the risk of a whale colliding with a ship.

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