This last weekend, we were fortunate enough to attend Whalefest in Sitka, AK.
Whalefest is more than just a scientific conference where researchers come to share their work. The weekend is filled with events to bring diverse groups of people of many ages and expertise together in the name of ocean science. Events like the Alaska regional ocean science competition (precursor to the Ocean Sciences Bowl), marine themed craft fair, the maritime grind talent show, 5K fun run and necropsy/biosampling workshops drew an audience not typical of your average scientific meeting.
One featured event geared towards college-aged and early career students was a cruise with scientists, where students are given the opportunity to pick the brains of professionals in the field while heading out onto the water to see the mammals that draw people to Sitka this time of year. This year we were graced with many humpback whales feeding in the sound showing behaviour that is rarely seen in these waters. The humpbacks used a range of feeding methods, from feeding at deeper depths below the water’s surface, to lunge feeding in small groups, to a group of more than 20 using bubble net feeding to corral herring. We spent around three hours out on the water on Thursday and consistently these 20 humpback whales fed.
Like clockwork, kittiwakes began circling the sky waiting for the whales to push food to the surface. As soon as bubbling appeared the birds rushed to the site giving a great indication of where the whales would reappear. All the whales lunged upwards at once in a tight circle, showing their billowing throats filled with fish and water before disappearing again. Following this, they quickly resurfaced taking a series of breaths before each whale disappeared with their fluke being the last part to be seen before the process started again. As well as the birds taking advantage of this feeding behaviour, sea lions were also seen hanging around trying to get in on the action.
Not only does the beautiful wildlife found in the Sitka’s sound bring people back each year, but the encouragement to partake in the discussion created through the conference, whether you are a scientist or otherwise, makes Whalefest an experience that people want to return to.
Written by: Natalie Rouse and Philly Harkness