SITKA - A fin whale, the first of its species to be seen in Sitka Sound in decades when it was spotted last September, has returned to the area.
Sitka marine biologist Jan Straley viewed and photographed the whale in Eastern Channel Saturday, and identified it as the same one that was here last year.
"Last year's whale is definitely the whale we have here again," Straley said. "That's a positive ID."
She recognized the same distinctive bump on the left dorsal fin and the same markings on the body and the flank that she observed on the whale she saw last year.
By comparing photographs, Straley has confirmed the whale also is the same one that was spotted on two occasions by an Allen Marine Tours catamaran south of Juneau in August.
Until last year, Straley said, she had never seen or heard of a fin whale in the Sitka area during the more than 20 years she has studied whales here.
Historically, fin whales ranged throughout Southeast Alaska, but the local population was wiped out by commercial whaling before World War II. Straley said the nearest remaining fin whale populations are in Dixon Entrance and the Northern Gulf of Alaska.
She also has seen fin whales offshore while she was out studying sperm whales.
"There are quite a few farther north and west - we're just filling in the sandwich," Straley said. "It's a good sign to see (the one near Sitka)."
Straley confirmed the identity of the fin whale after Allen Marine Tours port captain Brad Chapman notified her that he saw the whale Tuesday morning as he took a group of Blatchley Middle School science students on a whale watching tour.
Chapman said he had stopped his vessel to view a group of humpback whales near Camp Coogan Bay, when the fin whale swam by.
"We saw it was really super long, and the blow was really high," he said. "... We knew it was a fin."
Chapman said he took another group of students out Tuesday afternoon, but they did not see the whale.
Fin whales are the second largest species of whale after the blue whale, often growing to more than 70 feet long. Straley said the fin whale in Sitka Sound can be distinguished from humpbacks by its large size, its high blow and its large, curved dorsal fin.
Straley said she saw the fin whale feeding with a group of six humpbacks Saturday in Eastern Channel. Although the whales were together, she said the fin whale "definitely didn't seem to be socializing with the humpbacks."
Straley tracked the fin whale for a week last September, and obtained DNA samples from it. She said the DNA has not yet been analyzed since there are no scientists in the region who study fin whales. The DNA will reveal the sex of the whale and provide clues to its association with other fin whales in the North Pacific.
The American Cetacean Society's Web site, http://www.acsonline.org, says more than 30,000 fin whales were killed annually by commercial whalers between 1935 and 1965, and the current worldwide population is about 60,000.
The whales, which are generally gray or brownish-black on the back with white undersides, usually spend their winters in subtropical areas and migrate toward the poles in the summer, the ACS Web site reports.
Straley, who focuses much of her research on orcas and humpback whales, said she is not going to have much time in the coming week to devote to the fin whale.
She said she'd be interested to hear from anyone who may have seen a fin whale elsewhere in Southeast. She can be reached at (907) 747-7779.
Chapman said he observed the whale over a period of three weeks last year, where he saw it mostly between Camp Coogan Bay and Rocky Patch in Eastern Channel, but also farther out in the sound.