Whalefest 2015

For the UAS Whalesong

On November 5th, a group of students taking a ‘Discussions in Marine Mammalogy’ class went to Sitka, Alaska, to attend the 19th annual Sitka Whalefest. Unlike other years, the symposium was held on the Sheldon Jackson campus rather than the Harrigan Centennial Hall.

Many UAS students left early for the conference because they had volunteered to mentor a student from Kenai Peninsula College. When they arrived on the 5th, the UAS student mentors were introduced to their mentees and promptly set out on a whale watching tour. On this tour students and other passengers with cameras were urged to take as many fluke pictures as possible so that students could have an opportunity to practice identifying them.

At the symposium the students and their mentees attended talks that ranged from harmful algal blooms, sea ice ecology, whalefalls, bioluminescent jellyfish, to glaciers. Each day of the symposium covered a different section of the ocean. Day one was shallow apex, the second was deep edge, and the final was frozen border.

After the speakers for the day had finished, they and all of the students walked down to the Sitka Sound Science Center for a discussion       session. This was an awesome opportunity to ask the speakers questions about their research and lives.

Chris Whitehead, the Environmental Program Manager for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s Resource and Development, spoke about harmful algal blooms that lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning and a monitoring program that would allow for increased safety and knowledge about blooms and gathering shellfish. During his talk he really drove home three of the more commonly found plankton that produce toxins: pseudo-nitzschia, alexandrium, and dinophysis. As a part of that, he also gave simple descriptions for identification and the toxins they produce.

Jim Harvey, director of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, presented on some of the challenges of living within an estuary. His talk included the different factors that many of the organisms within estuaries face, such as tides, temperature changes, sediment amounts, currents, and salinity changes are just a few that were covered. His research focused on the inhabitants in and around Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. While understanding the ecology of these habitats Harvey also looked at the amounts of contaminants within the system and how those chemicals were affecting the organisms that feed, reproduce, or live in this habitat. What they found in terms of chemicals within the system was that they are being heavily incorporated. In harbor seals changes in coat color that are due to high levels of copper within their bodies can be observed. The toxins that are absorbed are also transferred to pups.

During his talk he also mentioned that San Francisco Bay is one of the most polluted places on the globe in terms of introduced species. Some of those introduced species, such as the yellow fin goby that is found around China, is now a common food for many harbor seals.

Nicole Misarti talked about her work with stable isotopes within mud and bones. By looking at the stable isotopes she is able to start looking at how marine and coastal systems have changed and how those changes have affected certain species.  Her team is the first group of researchers who have been able to extract hormone levels out of the bones of walruses that are hundreds of years old.

Diva Amon, a deep-sea ecologist, for her talk she presented research that she has done involving wood falls and whale falls. So far only 10 natural whale falls have been found. A whale fall is when a whale body falls to the bottom of the ocean, and as you can imagine, finding one is difficult. Due to the rarity of researchers have planted whales in various locations.

Helen Rozwadowski is a historian of science. Her talk was about the historical relationship between humans and the ocean. Before the 19th century, humans paid relatively little mind to the deep sea; the oceans were just a thing to cross in order to explore other lands. During her talk she took us though the change in how we viewed the oceans and how we begin slowly exploring the deep sea.

Steven Haddock specializes in deep sea and open ocean bioluminescent zooplankton. Much of his work looks at how jellyfish are able create and use the proteins necessary to produce light, which is done using genetic sequencing. Haddock also runs a citizen science monitoring effort (jellywatch.org). On this website people are encouraged to post pictures or descriptions of   jellyfish they have found. Even reports about a lack of jellyfish in the area are helpful.

Mette Kaufman spoke about sea ice ecology with her focus being on sea ice related food webs. Sea ice reflects about 90% of solar radiation and helps drive ocean circulation. In order to understand the ecology surrounding sea ice it is necessary to understand how it forms. The ocean begins to freeze at 29°F and as the ice forms a brine begins seep away. However, not all of that bring is able to make it into the water and so small pockets are formed within the ice. These pockets of brine are then a habitat for ice algae. Sea ice algae are an important food source for bacteria, worms, and small crustaceans and in turn those organisms become food for others as the ice begins to melt in the spring. As sea ice levels rapidly decrease each year the organisms that feed and reside within the ice are going to be facing many problems.

Chris Larsen is a geophysicist and oversees the glacier altimetry program at UAF and is the  director of Operation Ice Bridge Alaska. Operation Ice Bridge is a NASA airborne mission that is directed at studying glaciers and icesheets worldwide. It is the largest survey of its kind. In his talk, Larsen showed several time laps video clips of a couple of Alaskan glaciers. Within Alaska there are 59 tidewater glaciers (glaciers that extent into the ocean) and 26 of those have calving fronts. The Columbia is one Alaskan glacier that is retreating very rapidly at around 3450 km3 (35 km2) of ice has been lost. In order to help put that number into perspective for us Larsen told us to imagine that Mount Edgecumbe, a volcano near Sitka that stands at 976 m or 3201 ft elevation, was a solid chunk of ice. The amount of ice that is being lost at the Columbia is “100 Mount Edgecumbe popsicles.”  The total amount of ice being lost from Alaskan glaciers is around 75 million tons per year, which is resulting in roughly a one mm rise in sea level every five years. On a slightly brighter note, there are two glaciers within Alaska that are actually advancing. The Yahtse Glacier, 40-mile-long glacier within Icy Bay, and the Hubbard Glacier, a 76-mile-long glacier located in eastern Alaska and part of Yukon Canada, are both advancing.

Michael Castellini did not present any research; rather, he did a review of all of the different talks and tied them all together. Since the theme of Whalefest this year was boundaries or edges, Castellini spent a great deal of time discussing how we define edges. Is it a hard line? Soft one? Perhaps an edge is simply defined by how you ask a question.
During Whalefest there is also an option to attend several workshops and other activities. There were three workshops that were offered one regarding raptors, another with pinnipeds, and the third was about fish. The activities included whale watch, a short filmfest, a market and café, 5k and 10k walk/run, and the keynote banquet.

Many students from UAS took part in the workshops as well as several students and a  professor from UAS participate in the run/walk. One of those students was Esteban Rivas, who ran the 10k and came in third with a time of 40.08 minutes.

I would definitely recommend attending at least one Whalefest! Also having read several of the papers published by the speakers really helps with understanding and participating in the discussion sessions (you will get a lot more out of the symposium if you do). There is a class that is discussion based offered by Dr. Heidi Pearson that will help you do just that. I also think that this class also creates a sense of community amongst the students that take it and that is nice to have especially if you have never been to Sitka or a Whalefest before.

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