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Alaskan Scientists Continue Humpback Research as Whale Watching Industry Aims to Rebound

July 23, 2021

A lack of tourism in 2020 provided researchers with an unprecedented opportunity to study humpback whales in Alaska waters during an unusually quiet time.

A humpback whale tail fluke is visible above the water with mountains in the background. Humpback whales make Juneau, Alaska one of the premier whale watching destinations in the world. Credit: NOAA Fisheries (Permit #14245).

Juneau, Alaska is one of the most popular whale watching tourism destinations in the world. Roughly 1.3 million tourists visited the city in 2019 via cruise ship, and more than 330,000 of those visitors participated in local whale watching trips during their port-of-call.

In 2020, cruise ships did not visit Juneau due to COVID-19, and whale watching companies lost a majority of their business. This provided a rare opportunity for scientists to study humpback whale behavior and health in the absence of vessel traffic and heavy whale watching tourism.

Heidi Pearson of the University of Alaska Southeast partnered with Shannon Atkinson of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and NOAA scientists Suzie Teerlink and John Moran to collect baseline data during this unusual time. Their research will help us understand how changes in vessel activity potentially impact whale behavior and health. 

The scientists are currently in the second year of the study. Field crews from the UK's BBC visited Juneau during last year's field season to collect footage of the collaborative research project that they have now compiled into a featurette that is being circulated around the globe.

Studying Humpback Whale Behavior and Health

A scientist holds a drone up with his hands as it flies off to collect respiratory blow samples from whales.
Jacek Maselko of Auke Bay Laboratories deploys a drone to capture respiratory samples from the whales. Credit: Dr. Heidi Pearson.

Scientists usually begin surveying for whales in spring as humpbacks return to Alaskan waters from their winter breeding grounds in the tropics. When the scientists spot a whale, they use specialized dart guns to collect blubber biopsy samples and drones equipped with petri dishes to collect respiratory blow samples for later analysis of hormones. 

They also photograph fluke patterns for photo-identification, which they use to catalog each individual encountered and sampled during surveys. Fluke patterns are unique like a human fingerprint and photos can be compared to reference catalogs

A whale named Kelp dives below the surface with just her tail fluke visible above the water.
A whale named Kelp dives below the surface. The fluke pattern captured in this photo was added to the University of Alaska Southeast fluke ID catalog. Credit: Dr. Heidi Pearson (NOAA Fisheries Permit #20648).

The combination of biopsy samples, drone samples, and photo-identification allows the scientists to track individual whales from year to year to see if the whales are eating well, experiencing stress, and reproducing as expected.

Hormone analysis is improving the scientists’ ability to assess whale stress levels and predict and confirm whether or not whales are pregnant. Professor Shannon Atkinson analyzes humpback whale hormones in her Juneau-based lab, which is part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

“Once a blubber sample is collected, we routinely analyze it for four hormones: progesterone to detect potential pregnancy, testosterone to indicate sexual maturity in males, cortisol (an adrenal gland secretion to detect metabolic well-being—some people like to call it a stress hormone), and corticosterone, a primary metabolite of cortisol,” Atkinson explained.

Last year, the team collected blubber samples from 24 individuals. Based on the progesterone levels detected in those samples, they predicted that five whales would return in 2021 with calves. So far this season, they’ve re-sighted three of those five whales. All three had a calf in tow.

“This is super exciting because it means the answer we got was exactly right. We predicted pregnancy, and those predictions were correct. We also sampled animals that we believed were not pregnant. Of the animals we predicted were not pregnant, 100 percent of them were not seen with a calf in 2021,” Atkinson said. “We’re feeling really good about these data so far.”

One of the whales that returned with a calf in 2021 is a female named Flame. She is one of the most well-documented whales in the world and spends her summers in Juneau waters. This is the third year in a row she has returned to Alaska with a calf. Suzie Teerlink said humpback whales will typically give birth no more than every other year, so Flame’s streak of reproductive success is a positive sign.

A small biopsy dart is fired at a humpback whales back as it rises above the surface.
Scientists fire a biopsy dart at Flame’s back to collect a small blubber sample. The blubber sample can be analyzed for various hormones. Credit: Dr. Heidi Pearson (NOAA Fisheries Permit #20648).

“We’ve seen a lot of calves relative to other years. This is a good indicator of population growth, but it’s unlikely this sign of growth is a direct result of an anthropause,” Teerlink said, referring to the break in normal tourism activity. “It’s more likely a result of the oceanographic conditions leading up to this point. And generally, we’re still trying to tease apart the positive benefits of abundant prey years versus less ocean noise and human presence.”

John Moran added that he has seen more whales “logging” (resting at the surface) and more social interactions than in the past: “It’s unclear if this is because the whales are feeding better and taking a break after filling up, but even in good prey years before the 2014 to 2016 heatwave, we didn’t see this many whales lounging around and resting.”

Adrenal hormones cortisol and corticosterone can help reveal whether or not humpback whales are exhibiting lower stress levels in these quiet years. Heidi Pearson said the scientists first have to establish a baseline for cortisol and corticosterone to see how stress levels vary between years and individuals. 

“We’re predicting stress levels will be lower during the pandemic year, but prey abundance can affect stress, too,” Pearson said. “Stress levels also vary naturally throughout the life of an individual whale, but if we can get three years in a row sampling the same whales to compare vessel activity versus no vessel activity, that should allow us to make comparisons. But it’s still hard to tease apart all the factors.” Atkinson added that while the analyses are going well, it's too early to make any conclusive statements.

For now, the scientists continue to gather valuable baseline data under conditions they may never see again.

COVID-19 Impacts on the Whale Watching Industry

Whale watching is slowly resuming in 2021 and the Alaska Tourism Restoration Act will allow cruise ships to return this summer. The first large cruise ship is expected to arrive in late July, bringing whale watching tourists and much-needed relief for the local tourism industry.  

The Alaskan whale watching industry supports more than 1,000 jobs statewide with an annual economic output of more than $100 million. The city of Juneau accounted for more than half of that economic output in 2019.

Serene Hutchinson is the co-owner of Juneau Tours and Whale Watch. Hutchinson said about 90 percent of their guests come from the cruise ships that visit Juneau each year. When COVID-19 restrictions prevented ships from visiting Juneau in 2020, the consequences were swift and severe.

“Our sales projections were up 40 percent before March 2020,” Hutchinson said. “I remember on March 9th, 2020, our website sold the exact same dollar amount as the refund requests we received. That was when I knew, this is serious.”

“We shut down and laid everyone off that week. It was devastating. We told our employees we might be overreacting and we would hire them all back in a week or two if this blows over. Everyone was in   shock, but then a few days later all the other whale watching companies had to do the same thing. It was like a slow, dawning nightmare.”

So far in 2021, Hutchinson’s company is only pulling in about five percent of their usual business. She is hopeful that the returning cruise ships will help turn things around for the industry and the community as a whole.

“Our industry donates whale watching tours to schools and nonprofits in town,” Hutchinson said. “We were so excited about an expansion of our education program as well as a matching funds program we were launching that would raise considerable money for whale research and conservation, and that all went poof.”

It’s in the best interests of the whale watching industry to support whale research and healthy whale populations. “This is a resource that needs to be carefully managed and maintained,” Hutchinson said. “Our livelihood is dependent on the whales and we want them to stick around! We do tours equally for money and because we love it. Juneau is our home and we want to give back to the community.”

Humpback whales bubble net feeding in Southeast Alaska.
Humpback whales bubble net feeding in Southeast Alaska. Credit: NOAA Fisheries (Permit #14296).

Hutchinson’s company and many others participate in the WhaleSENSE program, which is dedicated to promoting safe and responsible whale watching practices. She said the program has been beneficial for the whale watching industry because it encourages cooperation and accountability between the various tour groups out on the water.

Suzie Teerlink is NOAA’s Alaska Coordinator for the WhaleSENSE program and described it as an eco-label for the industry to recognize high standards in education and stewardship. “We partner with whale watching companies throughout the State in the WhaleSENSE program and work with them to develop safe, sustainable practices,” she said. “It’s hard to see an industry that is largely composed of considerate, respectful business models suffering so much right now.”

“When I think of my work at NOAA, I think of it as working with the industry for sustainability, and working within the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act to make sure there are whales here for the future so both the ecosystem and their industry can simultaneously thrive."

Last updated by Office of Communications on July 26, 2021

Humpback Whale