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Whale researchers begin 2nd season of studying humpback whales


August 09, 2005

NOAA Fisheries' new research vessel in Alaska, the Oscar Dyson, left the port of Kodiak last week, carrying whale researchers into another season of studying humpback whales.

NOAA's North Pacific humpback whale research is part of a much broader program named SPLASH, which is heading into the second summer of a two-summer, three-winter international cooperative program to understand more about the whales. SPLASH stands for 'Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpback Whales'.

"Research last year found a surprisingly large number of humpback whales in Alaska's offshore waters," said 2005's lead researcher, Paul Wade, from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory at NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center. "In about 100 days at sea, researchers took 3000 fluke identification photographs and more than 900 biopsy samples. We also had the good luck to find and collect valuable data on both right whales and blue whales."

In 2004, the SPLASH cruise collected more Alaska sightings of the extremely endangered Pacific northern right whales than were obtained by all other studies in the previous five years combined. SPLASH researchers also collected confirmed sightings of blue whales in Alaska waters, something that had not happened for decades.

Wade and other scientists also expect to see and collect data on sperm whales, fin whales, and killer whales, as they did in 2004.

Researchers will spend two months on the Oscar Dyson finding and photographing whales for identification of individuals. Where possible, they are also taking small snips of skin for genetic studies of population structure.

Scientists are trying to piece together the number of humpback whales in the North Pacific overall, and if the numbers are increasing or decreasing. They would like to know if there are different populations, and to what extent the whales intermingle and move between different feeding areas in Alaska.

NOAA's SPLASH researchers are collaborating with six different research groups in Alaska, including researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the National Park Service, and the North Gulf Oceanic Society in Homer. Around the Pacific, the SPLASH program involves hundreds of researchers from the United States, Japan, Russia, Mexico, Canada, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Humpback whale populations were depleted due to commercial exploitation and remain listed as endangered today. The most complete recent estimate of North Pacific humpback whale abundance was conducted using mark-recaptures of individual whales photo-identified between 1990 and 1993.

Researchers are operating under Marine Mammal Research Permit. #782-1719.


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