Scientists, sightseers celebrate state's cetacean citizens

Posted: Wednesday, November 12, 2008

To the untrained eye, it would have been hard to pick out the marine biologists from the tourists on the whale-watching cruise last Saturday in Sitka.

Killer whale biologist Craig Matkin of Homer zoomed his camera on humpback whales surfacing, waiting to snap as the whale lifted its tail for a dive.

"I don't want to disappoint Jan," he said.

That's Jan Straley, probably the most recognized humpback whale researcher in Southeast Alaska, who brought her humpback whale tail catalogue onboard. Straley is the science director of the Sitka WhaleFest, a three-day symposium that has taken place in November for the past 12 years.

The Whale Fest motto is "Science made festive" and it seems that if any scientific symposium can be made into a fun community event, WhaleFest would be it. These massive and mysterious mammals can turn biologists into songwriters, and writers into biologists. And in coastal Alaska, marine research is a community affair - the results are significant for everyone.

To kick off the symposium, Mike Miller, chairman of the Sitka Marine Mammal Commission and a board member of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, tied marine mammal research and community health interests together.

"There's a very important tie between the scientific community and the Alaskan Natives who harvest the marine mammals," Miller said. "Our goals are common... conservation and overall good health of the resources. "

The weekend's symposium, focusing on movements and migrations of marine animals, might seem at first glance to have little to do with humans. In fact, one of the common topics was how to tag and track these animals so we can have a better idea of their behaviors when they are out of human sight.

But migration routes determine when and where marine animals intersect the lives of humans. As the Arctic Ocean loses pack ice, species of whales like the bowhead, gray and beluga are changing their migration routes. Native communities such as Barrow -where there is a long tradition of the bowhead whale hunt to provide meat for the village - may face drastic changes to their lifestyles as well.

Communities without a tradition of whaling are also affected by migration routes. Would tourism in Southeast Alaska be so robust without offering the possibility of whale sightings? Would Alaskan art, music and literature be as rich without inspiration from the sea? Hopefully we will never have a definite answer to these questions, but the range of events at WhaleFest indicate that whales mean much more than science can explain.

Around 200 people attended the symposium, including a few dozen university students, but the event that drew the largest crowd was the Maritime Monthly Grind variety show. Don Sinetti of Connecticut

performed sea chanteys in the Yankee whaling tradition. Homer killer whale biologist and author Eva Saulitis read from an essay bringing together her interests in whales, writing and music. And bowhead whale researcher Craig George played his guitar and sang in front of a larger crowd than he ever had before.

"Boy, this is a lot harder than giving a scientific lecture," George said. "Phyllis (Hackett, director of WhaleFest) told me that all the presenters had to be in the Grind, but it looks like I'm the only one who took the bait."

His cover of Shel Silverstein's "Mermaid" drew hearty laughs from the crowd, and a few people called for an encore after his symposium lecture the next day.

But the enduring chorus of the Grind, and perhaps all of WhaleFest, may have been his tribute to the importance of subsistence whaling to the community of Barrow, and the need for it to continue in the future. The crowd joined along in the chorus.

Keep, keep on whaling

Paddle that umiak true

Keep, keep on whaling

Let that great big whale come to you.

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