Study of humpback whales made possible by canceled tour season

    A humpback whale at Pt. Carolus, Alaska. (Photo courtesy David Tallmon)

    Juneau, Alaska (KINY) - Minimal tourism in Juneau has created an opportunity for researchers to study the effects on humpback whales.

    Researchers are collecting data to create a baseline of physiology and behavior of the whales, in the unprecedented absence of whale-watching tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Dr. Heidi Pearson, Associate Professor of Marine Biology at the University of Alaska Southeast, remarked, “When I learned back in March that the cruise ship season would be postponed or even suspended for the summer, I realized we had this incredible opportunity to study whales in the absence of high levels of vessel traffic.”

    Pearson is the principal investigator of the study, working on the project with researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

    In Juneau, the whale watching industry has tripled over the past 20 years. There have been concerns about what this means for humpback whales in the area. Recent studies have shown that humpbacks may be finding ways to avoid marine traffic including breathing more rapidly, changing directions, and increasing their speed.

    Dr. Shannon Atkinson, a co-principal investigator of the study and a professor at the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences noted, “The goal of the project is to determine humpback whale presence, local abundance and residency patterns. We’ll examine the blubber biopsies and respiratory blow samples to measure steroid hormones associated with stress, like cortisol, corticosterone and aldosterone. We’ll also analyze progesterone and testosterone to help identify sex and life-history status.”

    Juneau is a popular area for whale watching during the summer tourist season, most notably for humpbacks, which migrate to Alaska in the spring to feed and build up fat stores. The whales then migrate to other Pacific Ocean locales like Hawaii and Mexico, using the tropical waters to breed and calve during the winter months.

    The goal of the research is to inform guidelines for whale watching to ensure a sustainable industry. The project is funded by NOAA Fisheries Alaska Region, through a grant to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission.


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