Humpbacks thrive and adapt in southeast Alaska
Earlier this month, most of the world’s humpback whales were removed from the endangered species list. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says nine of 14 humpback populations have returned to healthy numbers after they were hunted to the brink of extinction. However, their rebounded numbers are causing them to do something they have never done before.
Scientists at the Alaska Whale Research Center in Warm Springs Bay are seeing odd things.
On a cool late-August day, they cruised Chatham Strait, identifying humpback whales by photo. In the last 20 years, the number of humpbacks in southeast Alaska has quadrupled and it’s caused growing pains.
There’s a lot more competition for food, so whales are getting creative.
Just two minutes into their time at the first checkpoint, lead researcher Andy Szabo spotted a fluke, or the whale’s tail. Driver Davide Asheri starts the boat and takes off. Normally, researchers would focus on getting a good picture of the fluke, so they can identify the whale, but all thoughts of the fluke disappear when the whale does something unusual.
“I can see bubble clouds. A little more to the right, more to the right — oh my gosh! Look at that!” cried Szabo, as he pointed to the left.
Mouths gaping, the researchers watched in disbelief as the humpback charged out of the water and scooped up thousands of tiny fish. It’s called solitary bubble feeding; very few people see it in action. The humpback creates a wide circle of tiny bubbles that trap the fish inside. The fish are scared of the bubbles, and the whale uses that knowledge to corral and then consume them.
“It demonstrates that these whales can use tools for one because bubble nets are tools they’re external from their body they’re manipulating their environment and it’s a pretty complex tool. If you’d have asked me 10 years ago, I’d say it doesn’t really happen that often,” said Szabo.
Bubble net feeding has become more common as whales teach each other how to do it. According to researchers, that’s why it’s critical to document the behavior.
After they got a good fluke shot, they headed back to Warm Springs to try to match the tail with one in their database. With so many whales in the area and an estimated 4,000 humpbacks in Southeast, they’re often not successful.
“No, no it’s frustrating because it would be really, really cool to match all of them because it’s a good feeling but it’s not surprising because the population is growing,” says researcher Margarita Wilson.
In two months, Wilson has recorded hundreds of flukes and matched just 25.
Even though documenting a whale can feel impossible, seeing bubble net feeding in action proves humpbacks are not only making a comeback, they’re adapting and thriving in southeast Alaska.