Alaska is usually overwhelmed with cruise ships and tourists in the summertime, but not this year. Tourism has come to a grinding halt due to the pandemic, and while it has been a disaster for the local economy, the state’s humpback whales seem to be enjoying the calm waters.
Dr. Michelle Fournet, director of the Sound Science Research Collective, has been listening in on whale conversations for 10 years. This year, however, has been completely different without human interference.
“The last time researchers were able to listen to humpbacks in a quiet ocean in Alaska was in 1976,” when commercial whale watching began, said Fournet, and their population was much lower as humpback whaling was banned only a decade earlier. The sound quality was also much worse as recording technology has improved dramatically. That means for scientists, there has never been a better time to record the song of whales.
Usually, whales in Juneau’s Auke Bay are surrounded by whale watching boats, causing the whales to call out louder but also less frequently. “When an animal calls less, the likelihood of it finding a comrade goes down significantly,” said Fournet. “So, we alter their social structure.”
But this year “we’re going to see how these humpback whales are interacting with their environment instead of how they’re interacting with us.”
At the moment, researchers are also gathering blubber biopsies to analyze the animals’ stress hormones during the 2020 season. They obtain the samples by firing an untethered biopsy dart or bolt from a modified .22 rifle or crossbow – researchers argue that this causes only limited harm – and compare the cortisol levels against samples collected from the same whales in 2014.
Although there is more data to gather, Dr. Heidi Pearson of the University of Alaska Southeast says the whales seem to be exhibiting more resting behavior this year than years prior. All in all, the goal of the studies is to establish a meaningful behavioral baseline and better understand the impacts tour boats have on marine creatures. That way, more responsible and sustainable ways of whale-watching can be developed to better protect local whales.