Tag Archives: Humpback whales

Dead Whales


This summer and fall several dead whales were spotted in the Western Gulf of Alaska, with the majority clustered around Kodiak Island. The number of deaths now stands at 43 whales, including fin whales, humpbacks, and, at least, one gray whale. So far, none of the whale carcasses that could be accessed have been in good enough shape to provide a clue to the cause of the deaths, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is so concerned that they have classified the deaths an “unusual mortality event” (UME). A UME is defined as a significant die-off of a marine mammal population that demands an immediate response.  This designation triggers a focused, expert investigation into the cause.

At nearly the same time dead whales were being discovered in Alaska, whales were also dying off the coast of southern Chile. In November, biologists in Chile announced that in June, 337 sei whales were found beached in a region of southern Patagonia in Chile. This is one of the largest whale strandings ever recorded. While these whales were found beached, researchers think they died at sea and washed up on the beach.

What caused the deaths of the whales in Alaska and Chile, and did they all die from the same cause? Sadly, we may never know the answers to these questions, but biologists in both Alaska and Chile suspect a harmful algae bloom may be the culprit. Most of the dead whales are baleen whales that feed low on the food chain, making them highly susceptible to a toxic algae bloom. What makes this scenario even more believable is that abnormally warm water conditions in the Pacific Ocean this summer led to a massive toxic algae bloom of the single-celled algae Pseudo-nitzschia.

Pseudo-nitzschia produces domoic acid, a powerful neurotoxin. Under normal circumstances, a domoic acid concentration of 1,000 nanograms per liter is considered high, but in mid-May, concentrations 10 to 30 times this level were found in the North Pacific. Domoic acid accumulates in zooplankton, shellfish and fish, and when mammals and birds eat these organisms, the accumulated acid over-stimulates the predator’s nervous system, causing the animal to become disoriented and lethargic. Ingestion of high concentrations of domoic acid can lead to seizures and death.

In addition to Pseudo-nitzschia, the warm ocean water conditions in the Pacific also may have resulted in blooms of other toxic algae, but if toxic algae are the culprit, why aren’t other mammals or birds dying as a result? These are questions researchers are scrambling to answer, and recently they have been rechecking photos to see if there is evidence that the whales may have starved to death. Warmer ocean conditions could have led to a reduction in the prey of these huge whales that must eat  continuously all summer to build a blubber layer that will last them through the winter.

There is no time frame for when a UME must end, and biologists plan to keep researching the whale deaths for a while longer, but they admit the cause may never be known. One dead whale washed up a few miles from where we live, but we saw many other whales this summer that seemed to be feeding and acting normally, and I hope the whale deaths were an anomaly that won’t continue next spring and summer.

Next week I’ll go into more detail about toxic algae blooms. For those of you who have read my novel, Murder Over Kodiak, you may remember that Jane Marcus was studying paralytic shellfish poisoning, a condition caused by a poisonous algae bloom, and since toxic algae have been in the news this year, I think it will be an interesting topic to tackle.

I am FINALLY ready to send my first Mystery Newsletter to those who have signed up for my list. I plan to mail it on January 6th, so if you haven’t signed up for my list yet, do so soon on my home page. My first newsletter will chronicle the events of the McCarthy massacre of 1983. Thanks, and be sure to leave a comment to let me know what you think of my post!

Whale Behavior

This week, I want to take a closer look at whale behavior. Over the past few weeks, I’ve mentioned various behaviors, and while the reason for some behaviors seems obvious,others are not so easily explained.

Fin Whales
Fin Whales

Blowing or spouting: This is how whales breathe, so there is no mystery why whales blow. The spray of water is of course not from the whale’s lungs, but it is water that is blasted from the top of the blowhole when the whale exhales. What is interesting is that whales can sometimes be identified by their blow. If all I see is an exhalation and very little of the body, I can usually tell whether I’m looking at a humpback or a fin whale, the two most common whales in Uyak Bay. A fin whale’s blow is very tall and column-shaped while a humpback has a shorter, bushy blow.


Fluking: Some species commonly raise their tail flukes in the air before a deep dive, and others do not. A humpback often raises its tail, while a fin whale seldom does. Why? I don’t know. Humpbacks are more acrobatic than fin whales, and this may have something to do with it.

DSC_0080 (2)

Breaching: This is when a whale propels its body upwards until at least 40% of it is clear ofDSC_0077 (2) the water. Adult blue whales rarely, if ever, breach, because they are too heavy. Fin whales are also very heavy and rarely breach, but when they do, it’s impressive! Humpbacks breach fairly often, and like most large whales, a humpback breaches by raising 90% of its body clear of the water surface and then twisting and crashing down with a large smack and a torrent of spray. Killer whales are capable of acrobatic leaps and somersaults. Scientists have offered many explanations as to why

Minke Whale
Minke Whale

whales breach, and it is probable they breach for a variety of reasons, including mating display, annoyance, aggression, a show of strength, a means of stunning prey, or removing parasites. I suspect one of the main reasons whales breach is because it’s fun. Wouldn’t you do that if you could?



Slapping: This category includes flipper slapping, tail slapping, dorsal fin slapping, DSC_0650lobtailing or tail lobbing, and head slapping. Possible explanations for this behavior include a display, aggression, communication, or a means of stunning prey. Humpbacks often lobtail and flipper slap, and both actions make a very loud noise, so it would be an DSC_0642effective means of communication.



Spyhopping: This is simply when a whale sticks its head out of the water and

Photo by Bob Munsey
Photo by Bob Munsey

looks around. By doing this, it can locate a passing vessel or find escape holes or channels in pack ice. Whales may also spyhop to look at people on a boat. Since visibility is better in air than it is in water, it only makes sense that a whale might want to stick its head out of the water to get a better look.


DSC_0072Flipper Waving: Whales sometimes float on their backs and wave their fins in the air. No one knows why, but it looks fun.

Sleeping: One of our brilliant summer guests (I’m talking about you, Karin!) asked me how whales sleep. I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know, so I checked and was quite surprised by the answer. Since whales are mammals, they must breathe air, so how do they sleep without drowning? Research has shown that they either sleep while swimming slowly next to another animal, or they rest vertically or horizontally in the water. Scientists believe that when a whale or dolphin sleeps, it shuts down only half of its brain, and the other half stay awake. The side that is awake watches for predators or other dangers and also signals the animal to rise to the surface and take a breath of air every few minutes. After approximately two hours, the whale shuts down the active portion of its brain and the other side wakes up and takes over.  To read more about this amazing behavior, check out this article.

Photo by Bob Munsey
Photo by Bob Munsey

There are many other whale behaviors, including feeding behaviors that I did not cover here. If you have any questions, please ask. Also, if you love mysteries, sign up for my monthly Mystery Newsletter. I am currently working on the first issue, and I apologize to those of you who have already signed up for it. It is taking me longer than I anticipated to get the first installment ready to go.


Baleen Whales


Baleen whales are in the suborder Mysticeti. They differ from toothed whales in a number of ways. All mysticetes have two nostrils or blowholes, while toothed whales (odontocetes) have only one blowhole. Mysticetes have a symmetrical skull, while most odontocetes have assymetrical skulls. Most toothed whales have a specialized echolocation system that is lacking in baleen whales. Female mysticetes are usually larger than their male counterparts, but other than that, there is no sexual dimorphism, while there is often marked sexual dimorphism in odontocete species. The most obvious difference between these two suborders, though, is that instead of teeth, mysticetes have baleen made from keratin, the same substance that comprises hair and fingernails. Stiff plates of baleen grow down from the gum of the upper jaws, and depending on the species, the baleen may be black, gray, creamy yellow, white, or a mixture of these colors. The outer edge of each plate is smooth, and the inner edge is frayed. The frayed inner edges intertwine to form a mat, allowing whales to filter feed and trap zooplankton and small fish in their baleen. Like hair and fingernails, baleen continues to grow at its base and wear along the edges.DSC_0670

All baleen whales are carnivorous, and most eat zooplankton or small schooling fish.  Most mysticetes employ one of two different systems for feeding, and some species use both systems, depending on the situation and prey density. These systems can be described as “skimming” and “gulping.” Skimming is when a whale swims open-mouthed through a food supply, while gulping, as its name implies, is achieved when a whale swims through a food swarm and gulps large amounts of water and food by extending the ventral grooves in its throat to greatly enlarge the size of its mouth, depressing its tongue, and opening its lower jaw to a nearly 90 degree angle from the body axis. After engulfing the prey, the whale closes its mouth and forces the excess water out through the baleen. It then uses its tongue to transfer the prey to its gullet, and from there, it passes into the stomach. Gray whales, which are mainly bottom feeders, have their own unique style of feeding. Most baleen whales feed for only four months during the summer, and they must consume enough food during this time to sustain them for the rest of the year. It has been calculated that a baleen whale consumes 4% of its body weight per day during the summer feeding season.

Baleen whales are some of the largest animals on earth. In fact, blue whales are the largest animals to have ever inhabited the planet. The buoyancy of water supports a whale’s body, allowing it to grow to a greater size than it could if it lived on land. This large size has several advantages. The decreased surface to body-volume ratio helps a whale conserve heat. The large body size also makes a whale safer from predators, and it allows a whale to eat large quantities of food when food is available and then store this energy in the form of blubber that can be broken down for energy during periods of fasting.

The general body shape of most baleen whales is cylindrical, tapering at the ends. This shape is energy-efficient for swimming and creates less drag. A whale’s skin is smooth and has no oil glands or pores. Many species of mysticetes have sparse hairs on the snout, jaws, and chin, but the lack of hair or fur on the body is an adaptation to reduce drag when swimming.

DSC_0650A baleen whale has a small, external ear opening on each side of its head that leads to an auditory canal. The middle and inner ear is similar to that of other mammalian species, but the ears are adapted for hearing under water.

Baleen whales produce low-frequency sounds, mostly below 5000 Hz. These are some of the loudest sounds produced by any animal, and the sounds travel hundreds of kilometers under water. Scientists think these loud sounds may be used for long-range contact, advertising for a mate, greeting, orientation, navigation, or announcing a threat. The sounds consist of very-low frequency moans, grunts, thumps, and knocks and higher frequency chirps, cries, whistles, and songs.

Some baleen whales can swim as fast as 20 mph (32 kph). They swim by using powerful up-and-down strokes with their tails to push their streamlined bodies through the water. While some mysticetes can dive to depths over 1000 ft (355 m), most species feed at relatively shallow depths. A whale holds its breath when under water, and when it surfaces, it opens its blowholes and blasts a loud exhalation. The whale then quickly inhales and closes its blowholes before diving. Most baleen whales surface and breathe several times before diving. The spout of water that is often the first visual clue of a whale’s presence, does not come from the whale’s lungs. As with other mammals, a whale’s lungs do not tolerate water. Instead, the water spout is produced from water that was on top of the blowhole when the whale exhaled, and the water condenses as the respiratory gases expand in the air. The size and shape of a whale’s “blow” varies from species to species.

Mysticetes can be found in all oceans. They live in polar, tropical and temperate zones. There are three families in the suborder Mysticeti. These are Balaenopteridae, or the Rorqual Whales; Balaenidae, the Right Whales; and Eschrichtidae, the Gray Whale. In my next few blogs, in the family Balaenopteridae, I will cover the blue whale, the fin whale, the sei whale, the Minke whale, and the humpback whale. In the family Eschrichtidae, I will cover the gray whale.

While I see these whales on their summer feeding grounds, I know many of you have watched whales in their winter breeding areas, perhaps in Mexico or Hawaii. Please share your experiences!

Sign up for my monthly Mystery  Newsletter. Beginning in late November, I will tell some stories about true-life, Alaskan crimes.

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Fin whales in Uyak Bay
Fin whales in Uyak Bay

Whales have been on my mind lately; probably because I’ve seen some nearly every time I’ve gone for a boat ride this summer and fall. Zooplankton and schools of small fish have swarmed the bay all summer and fall, providing abundant food for everything from larger fish, gulls, eagles, other birds, harbor seals, sea lions, and of course whales. I’m certain that if I jumped in my boat right now, within in minutes, I’d be in the midst of several huge fin whales, whose 18-ft. tall exhalations surpass any choreographed water-fountain show in Las Vegas. I’d probably also see two or three humpbacks waving their tail flukes in the air and perhaps leaping out of the ocean and slapping their large pectoral fins and tail flukes on the water.

I’ve also been thinking about whales, because that is the chapter I’m working on for my book on the wildlife of Kodiak Island. While I love whales, writing about them has been an arduous process, since little is known about many species, and I must draw bits and pieces of information from an array of sources. This painstaking research, though, has provided me with a better understanding of these huge, intelligent creatures, so I thought I would write a few posts about them. I will focus on the whales that can be seen near Kodiak Island, and I will admit that I have not seen all these species, because either they migrate past the island and do not enter the deep bays, or they spend their lives off shore. There is also another, darker reason for me to write about the whales near Kodiak Island. This summer more than 30 whales (mostly fin and humpback) died near Kodiak, and biologists are scrambling to discover the cause.

Whale species commonly found near Kodiak include fin whales, the second largest species of whale; sei whales, the third largest species of whale; humpbacks; Minke whales; and Orcas, or killer whales (although Orcas are actually dolphins, not whales). Gray whales migrate past Kodiak on the way from their breeding and birthing areas near Mexico to their northern feeding grounds, and blue whales, the largest species of whale, can be found off shore in the Gulf of Alaska. Blue whales, fins, sei whales, humpbacks, Minkes, and gray whales are all filter feeders and have baleen instead of teeth. Killer whales, of course, have teeth.

As you probably know, whales, like humans, are mammals. They have lungs and must breathe air to survive. They are warm-blooded, and like most mammals, they bear live young. Whales nurse their young with milk, and while you may not think of a whale having hair, all whales do have hair at some stage in their development. Whales are in the order Cetacea, and all members of this order are believed to have evolved from hoofed animals, such as cows, sheep, and camels, 45 million years ago.

All cetaceans have forelimbs that have been modified into flippers and no hind limbs. Their tails are horizontally flattened, and they breathe through a nostril or blowhole, located on the top of the head. Whales have internal sensory and reproductive organs to reduce drag when swimming, and cetacean mothers nurse their calves with a pair of teats that are concealed in slits along the body wall.

Cetaceans living in the cold ocean waters of the North Pacific must somehow maintain a body temperature that is nearly the same as a human’s body temperature, and a whale uses a number of mechanisms to accomplish this feat. First of all, it has a thick layer of blubber which has few blood vessels, reducing heat loss at the body surface. A whale has a counter-current exchanger, where veins at the periphery are surrounded by arteries. Heat lost by vessels flowing from the warmer core toward the cold periphery is at least partially absorbed by vessels flowing from the periphery to the core. A cetacean also has a fairly high metabolic rate to produce heat, and it has a low body surface to volume ratio, which conserves heat. Also, a whale breathes at a slower rate than a land mammal does, so warm air is expelled less frequently.

The order Cetacea is divided into two suborders: The Mysticeti or baleen whales and the Odontoceti, or toothed whales. I primarily will be discussing the Mysticetes, and next week, I’ll describe baleen and how it is used. Please leave a comment if you have any questions or would like to add anything about whales. I would love to hear about your whale experiences!

In late November or early December, I plan to start a monthly newsletter focused more on mysteries and my fiction writing. My first several newsletters will chronicle some true-life Alaska crimes. If this sounds interesting, please subscribe to my e-mail list.

Subscribe to my monthly e-mail mystery newsletter. Beginning in late November, I will begin chronicling some true-life Alaskan crimes!

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Two Tales of Entangled Tails

Humpback Whale
Humpback Whale

It has been estimated that marine mammal entanglement results in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, porpoises, and seals world-wide each year. Humpback whales, with their long pectoral fins, flexible tail flukes, and acrobatic behavior, are very susceptible to entanglement in fishing gear, crab pot lines, and marine debris. A scar-analysis study on humpback whales in northern Southeast Alaska indicated that nearly 78% of the whales in that population have scars, suggesting that they have recently been entangled in some sort of gear.

Entangled marine mammals may drown if they are not able to get to the surface to breathe, or even if they can get to the surface, they may starve if they can’t feed. Summers in Alaska are when baleen whales ingest enough zooplankton and small fish to sustain them for the rest of the year, so any lengthy period of time away from feeding can be critical. Whales may also suffer physical trauma, develop systemic infections from their wounds, or be hit by a vessel due to the whale’s lack of agility and inability to avoid it. Even if the whale manages to get free from the entangling nets or lines, there may be long-term impacts, such as a reduction in reproductive success.

A few summers ago, we were motoring back to our lodge after a day of bear viewing with a group of summer guests, when friends called on the VHF radio and told us they had spotted a humpback whale that had gotten a crab pot line, with the crab pot still attached, wrapped around its tail. They wanted to take a closer look at the whale, so Mike picked them up in the 19-ft. whaler that we were towing behind us, and I stayed aboard our 43-ft boat with our guests and worried about the dangers involved in approaching a 45-foot, 40-ton mammal. They didn’t want to get too close to the whale and stress him even further, but they wanted to see how badly he was entangled in the lines.

The National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) warns all well-meaning, untrained individuals to never approach or attempt to disentangle a large whale on their own, and in fact, it is illegal to attempt to disentangle a whale without the permission of the NMFS. NMFS is part of the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), and NOAA has a whale-disentanglement hotline (877-925-7773) that citizens can call to report entangled whales and initiate an “immediate” disentanglement response by trained rescuers. Rescuers throw grapples or use hooks on the ends of poles to attach to the entangling gear. They then attach large buoys, approach the whale to assess it and its entanglements, and use specially-designed knives on the ends of long poles to cut the whale free.

The idea of calling trained individuals to rescue this whale greatly appealed to me, and while it was a Friday evening, the hotline information stated it was a 24/7 hotline. I made the call on the satellite phone, but a recording informed me the office would be closed until Monday. Unfortunately for this humpback, he had become entangled after office hours.

We watched the whale fight its way to the surface to breathe, only to be pulled back under water by the heavy crab pot. After the whale became entangled, he apparently drug the gear into deeper water while he was trying to free himself. Now, the pot kept pulling him beneath the surface. His breathing was labored, and it sounded as if he was gasping for air. Mike and our friends slowly approached him, but the whale continued to thrash and move away from them. Finally, he moved quite a distance away, and they worried they were stressing him, so they left him alone.

We continued back to our lodge, and when we tied up to our mooring, we heard the distressed blow of the whale. He had followed us home, and the good news was that he was now in much shallower water, and the crab pot was resting on the ocean bottom and not continuously dragging him under water.

We watched the whale from a distance off and on all evening, and finally at 10:00 that night, Mike saw him raise his tail in the air several times before swimming away. Without the weight of the crab pot dragging him down, he was able to disentangle himself from the gear.

Humpback Breaching
Humpback Breaching

I hoped that would be the only entangled whale I ever saw, but unfortunately, on July 29th, 2015, we encountered another humpback whale with a crab pot wrapped around its tail. Since it was a Wednesday, I had hope that the whale-disentanglement experts would come to its rescue. We placed the call, and they recorded our information: Latitude and longitude, species and type of entanglement, condition of the whale, and the speed and direction it was moving. We hoped they would be able to mobilize immediately, but we were informed they would not be able to come out until the following day. We were concerned the whale wouldn’t make it that long and hoped that his humpback, like the previous humpback, would drag the pot into shallow water and set himself free.

That evening when we returned home with our guests, the humpback had moved several miles and was now in front of our lodge. We were happy he had made it to shallower water, but when we examined him more closely, we saw that he had wrapped the line several additional times very tightly around his tail. We were dubious he could be disentangled at this point. Before long, he slowly headed back toward deep water, and we feared he wouldn’t last much longer.

The following day, there was no sign of the whale or the buoy attached to the crab pot line. We searched the bay but saw nothing, so we called the disentanglement experts, and they cancelled their rescue mission. We hoped the whale had somehow freed himself, but we feared that wasn’t likely.

I imagined this tale of the entangled tail would have a happy ending like my first tale, and it is possible the whale did free himself and swim away, but I doubt it. At first I was upset with the disentanglement crew. If they had arrived a day earlier, they probably could have freed him. I was upset with us, because we didn’t have the knowledge and skills to help the whale, even if it was legal, and I was irritated at the crab fisherman for having his gear in the way of a whale. The more I thought about it, though, I realized that’s just the way it is when you choose to live in the wilderness so far from town. The members of the disentanglement crew have lives and jobs and can’t just drop everything to fly across the island on a moment’s notice to help a whale. That’s an expensive, complex endeavor that takes some time and planning. Even if we did have the proper equipment, training, and permission, approaching a huge whale is a dangerous task and best orchestrated and performed by those who have had previous experience. Finally, all of us who live and work near the ocean on Kodiak at sometime drop crab pots or deploy fish nets. It was nobody’s fault that this young whale, perhaps out of curiosity or playfulness, decided to approach this crab pot line too closely. It was just bad luck.