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Friday, June 25, 2004 - Page updated at 09:42 A.M.
Pacific waters are laboratory for humpback whale studies
By Sandi Doughton
"I've actually had my whole boat lifted up in the air and spun around by whales," said the veteran marine biologist. "Sometimes they raise their heads up out of the water and lean them against the side of the boat."
Adrenaline aside, small boats are limited in their scientific reach because they can't cover the endangered mammal's entire range, which extends from Central America to the Washington coast and the perilous waters around Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
On Sunday, a 224-foot federal research vessel will sail out of Seattle's Lake Union to help fill in the gaps as part of the most extensive survey ever conducted of humpbacks, a species that was driven almost to extinction by commercial whaling.
"What's exciting about this is that it allows us to see the complete picture, which we can't do with studies in a few isolated locations," said Calambokidis, whose Olympia-based Cascade Research Collective is joining an international cast of scientists in the project.
The five-month mission aboard the ship McArthur II will focus on the northern Pacific waters where the majority of humpbacks feed during the spring, summer and fall, said chief scientist Jay Barlow, of the National Marine Fisheries Service. The ship will zigzag up the coast of British Columbia and Alaska, then follow the Aleutians across to Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula.
A similar cruise last year surveyed the winter breeding grounds off Mexico, Central America and Hawaii.
The major goal simply is to get a good population estimate on a species that had dropped to less than 2,000 animals by the time the last whaling stations on San Francisco Bay were shut down in 1966, Barlow said.
Today, biologists estimate that the population may have rebounded to 10,000 animals or more.
If the population is stable or increasing, it eventually may be possible to remove humpbacks from the endangered species list, as was done with gray whales in 1994, Barlow said.
But other threats may be facing the whales today, from fishing-net entanglement, to toxic contaminants and noise pollution all of which scientists will assess during the cruise.
"Despite the fact that there is no whaling going on anymore, there are still human impacts that we don't understand," Barlow said.
Whale-watchers in Washington are well acquainted with Puget Sound's orcas, and the gray whales that migrate off the Pacific shore each winter. Humpbacks, though, aren't seen as often, because they usually stay about 50 miles from the coast.
"I don't think folks realize we have a fair number of them up here," said Ed Bowlby, research coordinator for the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which also monitors the whales.
A 30-foot humpback briefly took up residence in Puget Sound near Tacoma this month, but hasn't been sighted recently, Calambokidis said.
A popular tourist draw in Hawaii, humpbacks perhaps are the most acrobatic and photogenic of whales, leaping out of the water, waving their 15-foot-long pectoral fins and displaying distinctive, black and white tail flukes.
"They literally do make a big splash," Bowlby said.
Calambokidis has compiled photographs of more than 1,000 humpbacks, each of which can be identified by its markings.
The research cruise will greatly expand that catalog and allow better tracking of individuals and groups.
The photos also will document the scars left when whales get snarled in fishing nets and provide a measure of how often that occurs.
Researchers will use darts to collect pencil-eraser-sized blubber samples from as many whales as possible. Chemical analysis will reveal whether the animals have picked up dangerous levels of toxins, and DNA tests will help sort out family relationships and breeding patterns.
Humpbacks appear to be divided into distinct groups, with definite geographic preferences, Calambokidis said. The whales that feed off the West Coast primarily breed off Mexico and Central America, while female whales from southeast Alaska head for Hawaii to give birth.
That means local populations might be more vulnerable than previously believed, Calambokidis said.
If West Coast humpbacks were wiped out, the area probably wouldn't be recolonized, because other whales aren't accustomed to the area.
Russian, Canadian and Mexican scientists are participating in the project, called SPLASH (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks), but nearly all of the funding comes from the U.S. government.
This year's effort will total about $2.5 million, including several shore-based surveys throughout the North Pacific.
If he can find additional funding, Barlow hopes to continue the work for several more years.
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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