From: Mary Pemberton, Associated Press
Published May 22, 2006 12:00 AM

Glacier Bay Popular for Humpback Whales

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — To the delight of tourists, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve continues to be a popular draw for humpback whales.


Researchers with the National Park Service's humpback whale monitoring program -- put in place in 1985 in an effort to help prevent sometimes fatal encounters between whales and boats -- found the combined number of whales last summer in Glacier Bay and nearby Icy Strait set a record for the third year in a row.


Tourists are astounded by the whales, along with puffins, bears and other marine wildlife in a stunning setting, said Corey Child, general manager of the Glacier Bay Lodge, inside the nearly 3.3 million-acre Southeast Alaska national park.


"Most have never seen them up close and personal," said Child. "By the end of the day they are worn out 'ooh-ing' and 'ahh-ing.'"


A total of 145 whales were observed in the study area from the beginning of June to the end of August. In Glacier Bay, researchers spotted 103 humpbacks. Eighty-eight whales were spotted in Icy Strait south of the entrance to Glacier Bay. Some of the whales were sighted and counted in both areas.


In 2004, 136 whales were counted in the study area. The number was 115 in 2003.


Photographs of the whales' fluke and dorsal fins were compared to previous photographs to identify known whales. Twenty-two of the whales found in Glacier Bay and Icy Strait in 2005 appeared to be new to the area. Eighteen of those had never been seen before. One of the whales was last seen in Southeast Alaska in 1985.


Observers also spotted another trend. Whales were seen throughout the bay between May and October, before and after the survey was conducted. Observers said they believe they are seeing more whales in the shoulder seasons because of an overall increase in the humpback population in Southeast.


The whales aren't the only ones being attracted to the park. Most of the park's visitors arrive by cruise ship. Last summer, cruise ship visitors numbered 341,356. That number is expected to increase 23 percent over the next two years, according to the Park Service.


David Nemeth, the park's acting superintendent, said Friday the park has a good program in place to ensure the whales' safety, and that is why it is going forward with allowing more cruise ships into Glacier Bay.


The whales are big part of the visitor experience, he said.


"We certainly enjoy having the whales here," Nemeth said.


Humpback whales, which spend their summers feeding and raising young in Alaska waters, are drawn to the national park because of its abundance of food, said whale biologist Janet Neilson, who helped collect the 2005 data.


The whales eat mostly small schooling fish, including herring and capelin, and other small marine creatures such as krill, she said.


Humpbacks are increasing throughout southeast Alaska, Neilson said. The Central North Pacific stock -- a population that extends from British Columbia to Alaska to Hawaii -- is growing at an estimated 7 percent a year, she said.


"We are trying to offer humpback whales in Glacier Bay National Park more protection than in other waters of Alaska," Neilson said. "The whole idea is Glacier Bay National Park is a special place and we hope a sanctuary for humpback whales."


The daily report of whale sightings helps park officials manage boat traffic inside Glacier Bay, where vessels are required to stay about 500 yards away from the whales. The park is a popular destination for cruise ships, tour vessels, charter boats, private boats, passenger ferries and sea kayakers.


Outside the park, vessels are allowed to approach to within 100 yards.


In 2005, there were no incidents reported of whales nearly colliding with vessels inside the park, about 60 miles northwest of Juneau. However, there were several incidents in 2004, including the death of a calf found beached on a Glacier Bay island. The calf likely was hit by some type of vessel. A necropsy found severe dislocation of six ribs on its right side.


While conducting last summer's study, researchers observed several violations of park regulations. In early June, a private motor boat and a commercial fishing vessel approached well within the quarter-mile limit of a whale which was engaged in conspicuous tail-slapping.


Both vessels also were running within one mile of shore in violation of park regulations.


"When we contacted the private vessel on VHF radio, the captain indicated that his navigational path was intended to avoid the whale, despite the outward appearance of a deliberate close approach," the study said.


The commercial fishing boat, however, appeared unaware of the whale's presence.


Neilson said too-close encounters are fairly common in the park.


Last July, a calf was struck by a 26-foot cabin cruiser in Icy Strait outside the park. When the boat's captain saw the whale surface directly in front of the boat, he reduced his speed and shut off the engine.


"The calf struck the starboard bow of the vessel with its tail as it flipped its tail to avoid the vessel and dive," the report said.


It did not appear that the calf was seriously injured.


Source: Associated Press


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