This is a collaborative effort with the University of Alaska Southeast, University of Alaska Fairbanks, NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Office, and Alaska Fisheries Science Center/Auke Bay Laboratories.
An estimated 1.4 million tourists were predicted to visit southeast Alaska on cruise ships this year. Some residents worried about the impacts of this on the local community and the environment. They also worried about the impact of the booming whale watching industry on local humpbacks whales.
Then COVID-19 struck, zero cruise ships would be coming to Juneau this summer. The summer of 2020 was going to be quiet in the waters around Juneau.
This created a unique opportunity to monitor stress levels in the whales and the impacts of boat activity.
How do we know if whales are stressed? Hormones. Just like us, stress hormones can elevate in whales if they are not happy. Our plan is to collect skin, blubber, and “blow” samples from whales that were "biopsied" in 2013 and 2015-2019 during “normal” tourism years and compare the hormone levels.
How do you biopsy a whale? A small sample, thinner than a pencil about an inch long, is taken with a dart fired from a crossbow or small rifle. Sometimes the whale reacts with a tail flick as if startled.
We will also try to look at hormones from the whale’s breath using a drone, basically collecting snot from the whales blow.
The COVID-19 pandemic set us up with a great experimental design. However it does present some challenges. We need to stay safe while working together on a small boat.
Stayed tuned for further updates on this exciting research project.