For marine naturalist Emma Luck, seeing whales and other wildlife in Kachemak Bay was part of growing up in Homer. After spending her summers during college on the water working with Rainbow Tours, Luck was part of a coalition of organizations sponsoring the first Kachemak Bay Marine Mammal Forum in Homer this past week.
Brought together by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, with the support of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Kenai Peninsula College, the three-day forum held April 18-21, the culmination of a long-term conversation about educating boaters on how to ethically enjoy seeing the marine life of Kachemak Bay.
Kelsey Hansen, the outreach coordinator of Alaska Wildlife Alliance, said, “There’s been quite a few voices in the conversation” — including water taxi companies, guides, and the general public — who have been asking for more information on the bay’s marine life.
People want to know more about identifying whales, behaviors to look for, and areas that marine mammals tend to frequent, Hansen said. Others, she added, wondered “how can they be stewards of their environment and get involved in citizen science?”
Adapting to the challenges of planning group events during the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was a hybrid of virtual presentations and in-person events at Land’s End Resort.
Nancy Yeaton of Nanwalek kicked off the forum’s first afternoon with a virtual presentation about traditional knowledge and the community’s close ties with these waters. She spoke about elders’ knowledge of crafting qayaqs, and their skill in waterproof stitching — which involves placing a blade of grass between material to swell seams tightly closed — and which has been passed down across generations.
“The coast has taken care of us for thousands of years,” Yeaton said.
Hansen explained that part of the forum’s mission was to get people engaged with the bay’s history, as well as excited to learn more about marine mammals they might see as they’re on the water.
“I hope people walk away with a better understanding of some of the science, but also, I hope people just have a good time, and realize how special Kachemak Bay and the Homer area is,” Hansen said. “There’s a lot to celebrate.”
Diving into the science of some of the bay’s marine mammals, Dan Olsen of the Homer-based North Gulf Oceanic Society (NGOS) presented on the diet and culture of different killer whale ecotypes, including sharing acoustic recordings of their calls.
Luck said that one of her favorite facts about the killer whales of the North Pacific is that although their calls are unique to each family pod, all three ecotypes — resident (fish eating), transient (mammal eating) and offshore (fish and shark eating) — have been recorded making calls that “almost sounds like the whales are laughing,” Luck said. This shared change in call structure seems to occur in moments of excitement or when they are socializing.
While it takes a hydrophone to record calls underwater, anyone with a telephoto lens can help with photo identification — but Luck also emphasized that it’s important that people don’t get too close to whales just to take pictures.
Humpback whales’ tail flukes, which are often visible before they dive, “have unique pigmentation that stays true for their lifetime,” Luck said.
Killer whales, on the other hand, are identified by images taken of the whales’ left sides, including their dorsal fins, the white saddle patches on their backs, and any unique scarring. The North Gulf Oceanic Society has an extensive catalog of Gulf of Alaska killer whales.
Clear identifying photos of humpbacks with date, time and coordinates can be sent to Ginger Moore, who maintains the Kachemak Bay Humpback Whale Photo-Identification Catalog, at email@example.com. Images of both humpbacks and killer whales can also be uploaded at HappyWhale, where Luck volunteers her time helping with identification.
By tracking which whales are frequenting a given region and when, researchers can tell a story of an individual whale or a family group. Luck said an NGOS brochure about the personal histories of the killer whales she saw during a whale-watching trip from Seward made her want to learn everything she could about whales. She remembered thinking, “This is the coolest thing I have ever read.”
Learning about these charismatic mammals includes learning how to safely share the water with them. That means knowing how much distance to keep from different marine wildlife, recognizing signs of stress, and making sure not to cut across an animal’s path.
“A good general rule of thumb is to stay 100 yards away from the marine mammal that you’re viewing, whether that’s in a kayak or a [motorized] boat,” said Luck. “Animals often give behavioral cues that they might be getting a little uncomfortable,” she added.
For whales, signs of stress might include tail slapping, changing direction or swimming away. Hansen advised boaters to slow down around all marine mammals, and to turn off the vessel’s motor if animals do approach or surface nearby.
When there are multiple boats viewing a whale or pod of whales, Luck said to make sure not to get too close, and to limit viewing time to 30 minutes or less.
Encounters with sea otters are likely to be more frequent, which means knowing when to put down the camera and move along.
“Everybody wants that cute photo, where you’ve got the sea otter with its head up looking at you,” Luck said, but that is actually a sign that it is alert and uncomfortable.
“We have the intention and hope to give people new information,” Hansen said, and also that the forum will spark an ongoing conversation between people who spend a lot of time out on the water.
“I think it’s just really valuable when we’re all working together,” she said.
The presentations from the event will soon be available on Alaska Wildlife Alliance’s website at www.akwildlife.org/kbay.
To learn more about traditional Chugach Native culture, visit www.chugachheritageak.org/.