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Episode 86: Humpback Whales, Wolves and Bison

By KTVA Alaska 5:45 PM December 18, 2016

 

By Emily Carlson

Warm Springs Bay is not easy to access. From Anchorage, we hopped on a quick flight to Juneau, then had to hire a charter. There are no regularly scheduled flights to the community. With about 60 summer residents, only one or two people call the community their full-time home.

The community is also home to a research center focused on studying humpback whales. The center is housed in an old general store where the floors are sagging and you can find expired canned goods on the shelves.

The three researchers who live there want to be there so badly, they’re working for free. The application was arduous and extensive: nearly 200 students from across the globe applied for the coveted positions. The group’s lively leader, Canadian Andy Szabo, chose an international team: Maeve O’Connell from Ireland, Margarita Wilson from Germany, and Davide Ascheri from Italy.

The big draw in Warm Springs Bay, of course, is the humpback whales. Chatham Straight is one of the premier places in the world to study the giant mammals. We found out that humpbacks are experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Back in the early 1900s, humpbacks were hunted to the brink of extinction. However, in 1982, the International Whaling Commission outlawed the hunting of the species.

Researchers in Warm Springs Bay say in the past 20 years, the population in Southeast has quadrupled. However, they don’t have a good estimate on an exact number, so it’s the research center’s job to count.

On our second day in Warm Springs Bay, we left mid-morning to start a long day of monitoring humpbacks. At the first point, we spotted two humpbacks. On our way to the third, something extraordinary happened. The researchers started screaming and pointing and acting like kids. Suddenly, I saw dozens of fish flipping out of the surf, then part of a whale lunging out of the water. It happened again just a few minutes later, just a few feet from the boat. It took me a minute to figure out what was going on.

Solo bubble net feeding is unusual in southeast Alaska. Szabo says it started happening about a decade ago and is becoming more and more common. The whales are eating different kinds of food and they are adapting their behavior to survive in a different kind of environment.

However, lately it’s been clashing with others who live in the area.

This week on Frontiers, you’ll get a front row seat to the so-called whale renaissance. We take you to this remote and beautiful spot in southeast Alaska where you’ll get a view that few people have ever seen. My photographer Emily Landeen and I agree: this is the most special experience we have had since we moved to Alaska. It’s tough to describe the chills you get when you encounter one of the giant beasts so up close and personal. I hope this episode gives you greater insight into the world of whales right here in Alaska.

We also get an update on the wood bison relocation project and hear how the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center has helped to play an important role in the process.

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