It’s spring in Sitka Sound and everybody is talking about whales.
Humpback whales are returning from their breeding grounds in Hawaii and Mexico. After fasting all winter, they gorge on the schooling herring, lunge feeding and breaching all around the sound. Photos of bubble-net feeding are popping up on Sitka Chatters Facebook group and Seamart, the local grocer that boasts a world class view from its parking lot, swapped out the weekly deal for “Free Whale Watching” on the reader board.
The relationship between Southeast Alaskans and whales is globally unique. Tourists visit from across the planet to snap photos of lunging lips and flapping flukes, whales visit locals as they harvest salmon with their families, and it’s not uncommon to hear humpback harmonies from a tent or kayak.
Whales might be iconic, but they are also stinky. Within their perished bodies that occasionally wash up on our beaches, whales may also contain secrets to their species.
It’s a calm and sunny day, and a group of Sitkans travel out to Kruzof, a volcanic island west of town, to help necropsy a humpback whale. The body is enormous, splayed across the black sand beach. Dozens of chattery ravens await nearby, and one can imagine what toothy beasts may be lurking in the forest just beyond the heaps of soft driftwood that outline the forest.
When the beached 47-foot female was spotted from a Coast Guard helicopter on March 14, they notified the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Alaska Stranding Network, who then alerted the local volunteer marine mammal stranding network to quickly mobilize for the next weather opportunity.
The Alaska Stranding Network includes NOAA Fisheries employees and volunteer members in communities throughout Alaska. NOAA provides equipment and usually, before COVID-19 travel restraints, a veterinarian. The crew on the ground in this case is made up of local volunteers and researchers from the University of Alaska Southeast, the City of Sitka, Sitka School District, Sitka Tribe of Alaska and more, all with various experiences on marine mammal strandings and necropsies. The crew will locate and gather tissue and organ samples, take measurements and photographs, look for a potential cause of death, and even 3D-map parts of the whale for unique educational purposes.
Tools and sample bags are neatly arranged on a tarp and Dr. Lauren Wild takes control of the group. Wild is a UAS researcher and fisheries professor, and yes, you can call her Dr. Wild.
“Pat can start with the vertical blubber cuts and Stacey, you can excise the eye,” directs Wild.
The eye can illuminate information about age by examining the lens, and histology with the fluid. Unfortunately, it’s often the first part to go, pecked out by birds. The crew is lucky; this whale still has its peeper intact!
Wild is the volunteer coordinator for Sitka’s stranding network, and locals may also recognize her as an excellent fiddler whose Scottish jigs light up the Pioneer Home or Backdoor Cafe. She grew up in Sitka and holds a master’s degree in marine mammal science and a PhD in fisheries. She studied interactions between sperm whales and long-liners and her research will help managers better mitigate predation by whales on commercial black cod fisheries.
Today, she’s doing what she loves—fieldwork.
“We like to think of these whales as a gold mine because, especially if it’s fresh, you can use skin and tissue samples to get genetics. You can look at relatedness amongst other whales. You can put it in our genetic database and see if it matches whales that traditionally migrate to Hawaii or Mexico,” explains Wild.
“You can also use the blubber to do hormone and stress analysis, and look at progesterone levels to see if it is currently or has recently been pregnant. You can get a lot of information from a dead whale beyond just cause of death,” she adds.
Each initial slice reveals the brilliant contrasting layers of carbon black skin, milk white blubber, and ruby red flesh. Oil bubbles and drip like braided rivers out of the slices and dance around as golden beads on pools of ocean water. The tongue looks like an enormous pool float, inflating and deflating when eager bodies crawl up the mouth to access different parts of the head.
Heaps and heaps of organs spill further and further outside of the body, as the crew takes samples and tries to understand why this whale died.
When combined with other research, the data the crew obtain can help illuminate patterns around Sitka Sound. In 2014 and 2015, unusual warm weather events created the infamous “blob.” Warmer surface temperatures catalyzed phytoplankton blooms and cascading changes across the marine environment. As a result, Hawaiian and Alaskan researchers recorded a lower number of whales calving for several years. In Sitka Sound, researchers noticed many skinny whales during the blob years.
“You never want to see a whale’s scapula showing, because that means it doesn’t have enough blubber, which means it hasn’t been getting enough food,” explains Wild.
“These events seem to be happening because of climate change — more suddenly and they’re more intense. Although we’ve seen a large increase in the population of humpbacks since the cessation of commercial whaling, sudden changes to food sources can be really damaging to individuals and I think we will see more of them,” adds Wild.
Being proactive by gathering and analyzing research, including on whale casualties iteratively, helps researchers better understand and suggest adaptation plans for oceanic systems.
Back on the beach, graceful lines of the undulating throat grooves tuck behind the whale’s ballerina-like flippers. The necropsy is both beautiful and grotesque all at once.
“Is this a lung or a heart or what?” The volunteers scramble to get samples from as many different organs as they can.
Turns out, it’s pretty difficult to discern between deteriorating organs, regardless of how huge they are. One part is pretty obvious though; the crew take a sawzall to the baleen — plates that line the mouths of toothless whales to help filter food.
Wild explains how the baleen can provide a dietary time series starting from almost the beginning of a whale’s life. Baleen grows like our fingernails but doesn’t get clipped, and a new layer grows each year. Some years, they feed more on herring, others on krill, and you can see those variations. You can also see seasonal migration periods a humpback takes to warmer waters to breed and calve, when they fast for months.
When the crew gets into the stomach, it’s clear this corpulent whale had been gorging on herring. Little fish bones are abundant. The crew take quick breaks to fill their own tummies. They make them snappy however, since they only have a limited window of time to gather samples.
It’s not just scientists out here running the show — the necropsy is a community effort. Pat Swedeen spends his days as a building inspector for the City of Sitka in town. His alternate ego is as a volunteer whale slicer. He was the first atop the whale in the rising sun, eager to take the initial slice and search for an important but quickly deteriorating ear plug, a waxy substance in the inner ear that has a timeline like a tree ring.
“The volunteers are taking time out of their day, because they are interested and they want to contribute and give back and help learn about what information you can get from this whale. It’s a big community effort and that’s a really unique thing about Sitka,” says Wild.
Stacey Golden is a Sitka High biology teacher who took necropsy training and volunteers with the group. She will use information and photos to teach her students about the biology of the marine mammals in their own backyards.
“Another reason these whales are so valuable is because they provide world class educational opportunities locally,” says Wild.
Local volunteers using personal boats, including the authors of this story, provided transportation in addition to the Coast Guard with two of their helicopters. With the whale carcass located on a relatively inaccessible beach being hammered by swell, the only other safe way to access the whale was to hike through over a mile of forest and muskeg. With all the necropsy gear, a hike-in would not have been possible in the five and half hour time frame between high tides.
“It was instrumental that the Coast Guard was able to take us. They’re helpful and great partners and they do so much service for the community,” says Wild.
A wind lifts up a gust of pungent stink and we wrinkle our noses. The smell really sticks like a deeply penetrating oil to clothing and skin. Volunteers duct tape rain gear to their Tuffs and rubber gloves to try and keep the whale from coming home with them. They take baths in the surf break, scrubbing furiously in the rising tide, though they will still likely have to bid farewell to their rubber rain gear and clothes upon return to town.
Another element of this necropsy that is as obvious as the rank smell but far more refreshing, is the presence of confident women leading the charge. Including Lauren, six of the 10 on-site crew are women.
“Fisheries and marine mammal science is fairly dominated at the upper levels by men,” says Wild.
Like many Sitka youth, Wild could not wait to “get off the rock” after high school. Her international relations degree took her to Boston and Madagascar, where a study abroad program led her to humpback whale research. It was Jan Straley and her world-renowned whale research lab that inspired Wild to build her career and life back home in Sitka after completing her master’s in Scotland.
Straley, a professor of Biology at UAS, is one of few women at the top of her field. She has been conducting research in Sitka Sound for 40 years, and started a celebration of marine science that occurs each November, called Whalefest, which attracts marine mammal researchers from all over the world to little isolated Sitka.
“Diversity is important in all fields. Being able to see Jan as a well-respected female in science who ran her own program and her own boat in a place like Sitka, where you’re often surrounded by men on the water, was really inspiring. I had a mentor who I could see myself in. When you don’t have that, it can be much harder to envision what is possible in your profession and increase diversity,” says Wild.
The necropsy is complete and the Coast Guard helicopter arrives, pushing sand clouds that bite our cheeks and make us squint. The crew loads the samples, the precious cargo that may help elucidate the mysteries of our huge graceful neighbors.
The sound of rotors fade as they make their way back to Sitka. The rest of us will hike back to the anchorage and boat home across the Sound. The necropsy samples will continue on from the UAS lab to the Alaska Veterinary Pathology Services Lab in Eagle River, also a member of the Alaska Stranding Network, for analysis.
Weeks later, the team is still awaiting results, but Wild expects to be notified soon. “We’re very interested to see what they find, because we have not been able to identify this whale yet and did not find any obvious causes of death during the necropsy,” explains Wild.
Whether one enjoys cutting open a dead whale with the Alaska Stranding Network, watching whales bubble-net feeding from the parking lot of the grocery store, learning from top-researchers at Whalefest, or bringing visitors out on Sitka Sound to witness these awe-inspiring creatures, whales are (literally) a big part of what makes Sitka unique.
“We can have a connection to a place through animals and the environment that we live in, without really being consciously aware of it because it’s so common, and that is really special,” adds Wild. For Dr. Wild, honoring that connection to place includes being knee-deep within a whale, conducting research that may help solve marine mysteries.
• Sustainable Southeast Partnership is a diverse network of tribal governments, organizations, businesses and individuals working together to reach cultural, ecological, and economic prosperity for Southeast Alaska. SSP shares stories that inspire and better connect our unique, isolated communities. Resilient Peoples & Place appears monthly in the Capital City Weekly. SSP can be found online at sustainablesoutheast.net.