For scientists, there has never been a better time to record the song of whales.
Alaska is usually busy with cruise ships during the summer but, courtesy of 'you know what', not this year. And the territory's humpback whales seem to be enjoying the calm, quiet waters.
Dr. Michelle Fournet, director of the Sound Science Research Collective, has been listening to the hauntingly eerie sounds of whale conversations for 10 years. This year, with no human interference, the experience has been remarkably different.
“The last time researchers were able to listen to humpbacks in a quiet ocean in Alaska was in 1976,” when commercial whale watching began, said Fournet, and their population was much lower as humpback whaling was banned only a decade earlier. The sound quality was also significantly worse as recording technology has improved dramatically. The good news for scientists is that there has never been a better time to record the song of whales.
Usually, whales in Juneau’s Auke Bay are surrounded by whale watching boats, causing the whales to call out louder but also less frequently. “When an animal calls less, the likelihood of it finding a comrade goes down significantly,” said Fournet. “So, we alter their social structure.”
But this year “we’re going to see how these humpback whales are interacting with their environment instead of how they’re interacting with us.”
At the moment, researchers are also gathering blubber biopsies to analyze the animals’ stress hormones during the 2020 season and comparing the cortisol levels against samples collected from the same whales in 2014.
Although there is more data to gather, Dr. Heidi Pearson of the University of Alaska Southeast says the whales seem to be exhibiting more resting behavior this year than years prior. All in all, the goal of the studies is to establish a meaningful behavioral baseline and better understand the impacts tour boats have on marine creatures. That way, more responsible and sustainable ways of whale-watching can be developed to better protect local whales.