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KODIAK: Refuge Cooperates in a Whale of a Survey
Alaska Region, April 30, 2007
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Biologists who study whale populations use cameras for photo identification and crossbows to obtain tissue samples. Photo: S. Mizroch/NMML
Biologists who study whale populations use cameras for photo identification and crossbows to obtain tissue samples. Photo: S. Mizroch/NMML - Photo Credit: n/a
Upon striking a whale, the arrow bounces off and removes a tiny plug of tissue, which will be assayed in a lab to reveal genetic status.  Photo: D. Zwiefelhofer/USFWS
Upon striking a whale, the arrow bounces off and removes a tiny plug of tissue, which will be assayed in a lab to reveal genetic status. Photo: D. Zwiefelhofer/USFWS - Photo Credit: n/a

Kodiak Refuge staff is accustomed to conducting an annual wintering waterbird survey during the dark and stormy days of February. This year however, with the addition of National Marine Mammal Laboratory (NMML) researcher Sally Mizroch, the annual expedition became a "whale" of a survey. In addition to completing the waterbird survey, Mizroch and refuge staff Denny Zwiefelhofer and Jeff Lewis successfully sampled whale populations wintering along western Kodiak Island.

Analysis of humpback whale photos confirmed consistent use of Kodiak waters in winter and summer by the same individuals. If the humpbacks in Kodiak follow the same pattern of humpbacks in Southeastern Alaska, the ones we observed were probably completing a seasonal feeding cycle before undertaking their migration south to a low-latitude concentration area.  Researchers have documented migrations of 36 days or less between southeast Alaska and Mexico. 

Apparently, the Kodiak region is a crossroads for North Pacific populations of humpback whales. Analysis of NMML’s North Pacific humpback whale database indicates that whales identified in Kodiak also have been seen in Hawaii and in all regions of Mexico (mainland, Baja and offshore).  Individual whales seen near Kodiak (Shumagin Islands) have also been observed in Japan.

Contrary to the familiar humpback whales, we know comparatively less about fin whale migration patterns and timing of seasonal movements. However, analysis of our photographs confirms that fin whales of the Kodiak area do, in fact, migrate. Scars on our fin whales, remnants of bites by cookie cutter sharks, a species that does not range north of 38° latitude (about as far north as San Francisco) prove that these whales spend time in warmer waters. Low latitude migratory destinations of our western Gulf of Alaska fin whales are unknown. The presence of fin whales in Kodiak’s protected inner bays offers a rare opportunity for photo-identification and tissue sampling since the species typically inhabits the open ocean.

Long-term whale sighting data suggest that Kodiak coastal waters support abundant prey for humpback and fin whales. Repeat sightings of some individual humpbacks indicate that they tend to return to the same feeding areas and habitats. "Long-term winter surveys jointly conducted by the refuge and NMML have helped us learn more about the longevity and mortality rates of these endangered species, and it's a double bonus when we can complete two surveys for the price of one," added Zwiefelhofer.


Contact Info: Kristen Gilbert, 907-786-3391, Kristen_Gilbert@fws.gov



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