The Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) survey team based in Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow), Alaska, had finished their line-transect survey in the northeastern Chukchi Sea on 28 July and were transiting through the Chukchi Sea study area at an altitude of approximately 6,500 ft when they sighted mud plumes left behind by a feeding gray whale. To better document the whale, the aircraft descended to an altitude of ~1,200 ft. The photo shown above was taken through the observer’s viewing window with a cell phone during the descent.
Feeding gray whales are a common sight for the ASAMM-Chukchi team and yet this was a unique sighting because of where the whale was -- inside the confines of Peard Bay (Figure 2). Peard Bay is a relatively small and shallow bay located northeast of Wainwright, Alaska, in the Chukchi Sea. It is approximately 18 miles long at its widest point and approximately 20 feet deep (Figure 3).
The ASAMM project has conducted surveys annually since 1979, yet, prior to the 2016 field season, this project had not observed a gray whale inside the confines of Peard Bay. In 2016, ASAMM first observed gray whales inside the bay, when at least two unique whales were seen feeding on several occasions from 6 August to 5 September. The observation made by ASAMM on 28 July 2017 marks the second year in a row with a gray whale feeding inside the bay.
Since July 28th, the survey team has had time to analyze photos taken of the sightings in 2016 and 2017. By comparing the gray whales in those images, the researchers have determined that this year’s whale is different than the two documented in 2016 (Figure 4). You might be asking, “Why have gray whales just recently been sighted in Peard Bay?”, to which the answer, besides, “Great question!”, is not clear at this point. We can only hypothesize, but it could be that we are seeing changes in habitat selection, changes in the availability of the gray whale’s primary food sources, or effects of increasing gray whale population abundance overall or increasing gray whale occurrence in the northeastern Chukchi Sea. On the other hand, it could be that the channels for entering and exiting the bay have shifted to allow better access. Continued monitoring of this area will help researchers determine if this is a new trend or just a fluke (pun intended).
With two and half months left in the field season, the ASAMM-Chukchi team can’t help but wonder how many more gray whales they might find inside Peard Bay.
Meet the Bloggers
Amelia Brower is a NOAA Fisheries affiliate with the NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center through the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington (UW).
Amelia began working with marine mammals in 2006. She has participated in marine mammal necropsies, seal, sea lion, and fur sea lion rehabilitation and diet and life history studies, bone preservation, monitoring for manatees and other marine life from dredges, oceanographic sampling, small boat surveys for toothed whales off Hawaii, and seal, sea lion, and North Atlantic right whale aerial surveys.
Amelia Brower joined the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project in 2009 as a seasonal observer and as a year-round core team member in 2010. Amelia is a team leader during the field season and spends the rest of the year error-checking and analyzing data and photos and assisting with and producing reports, presentations, and scientific publications. Amelia’s work within the ASAMM data has focused on gray whale feeding in the northeastern Chukchi Sea and humpback, fin, and minke whale distribution in the Chukchi Sea. She also serves as the ASAMM polar bear data liaison.
Christy Sims is a NOAA Fisheries affiliate through the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington (UW).
Christy started as a photo-identification volunteer at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in 1998, and has been working with the Cook Inlet beluga whale project since completing her Masters of Marine Affairs at the UW in 2001.
Christy has worked as observer and videographer on the Cook Inlet beluga aerial surveys since 2003 as well as working on photo-id projects on humpback and bowhead whales. She has also participated in Aerial Survey of Alaska Marine Mammals (ASAMM) as a team leader since 2012.
When she isn't flying around in Alaska in a small plane, Christy is in Seattle analyzing data or designing and managing databases.
Amy Willoughby is a marine mammal biologist at NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
Amy began her career on the sandy beaches of Florida’s Atlantic coast where she conducted sea turtle nesting surveys. She took to the skies in 2009 as an aerial survey observer for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s North Atlantic right whale Early Warning System project.
Since then she has logged hundreds of flight hours searching for protected marine species in the Gulf of Mexico and coastal waters from New Jersey to South Carolina.
Amy has been involved in numerous field projects, conducting research on a range of species including salmon, marbled murrelets, bottlenose dolphins, ice-associated seals, and polar bears.
In 2014, Amy headed to the Alaskan Arctic for a seasonal position with the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project as a marine mammal observer and was fortunate to have the project invite her on as a full-time employee. Since then, she has worked for ASAMM year-round on fieldwork logistics, data management and analysis, and reports, and she serves as team leader and walrus data liaison during field operations.
Janet Clarke is a contractor with Leidos who supports the Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals (ASAMM) project through a contract with NOAA Fisheries Alaska Fisheries Science Center.
Janet began studying Arctic marine mammals in 1982, and her first project as a young naïve college graduate was as a biologist on these same aerial surveys. She logged about 1,500 aerial survey hours from 1982-1991, most of which were flown in Grumman Goose aircraft and often over large expanses of sea ice. From 1991-2007, Janet supported several Navy exercises as a marine mammal (and occasionally sea turtle) Subject Matter Expert, both in the field and as a co-preparer of environmental impact statements and environmental assessments. The Arctic remained her geographic area of interest, however, and she was delighted to return to the area in 2007 as the Project Lead for ASAMM.
As Project Lead, Janet’s responsibilities extend to field project management, data analyses, report and manuscript writing, formal and information presentations, producing garishly colored maps, being the keeper of ASAMM “corporate” knowledge, and (best of all) occasionally being a team leader on ASAMM surveys.