A Whale of a Festival

Students have a splashing time at Sitka WhaleFest


Bowhead whales can live to over 200 years old.

“Think about what a single Bowhead has seen in its lifetime,” Dr. Michael Castellini told the group of whale watchers gathered in  Sitka for the 2019 WhaleFest. 

 In that 200 years, today’s whales have lived through  the Industrial Revolution, both World Wars, and the rapid disappearance of the sea ice. Bowhead whales have had a front row seat in the changing ocean. 

Students from UAS joined students from UAF, Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, Sitka community members and more than 100 others at WhaleFest from Oct. 31 to Nov. 3. This year’s theme was “Mysteries of Our Changing Seas,” and talks and workshops covered a number of long-term studies revealing what is known about the ocean today.

Those arriving on Oct. 31 went on a whale-watching excursion with several of the attending professors.  While humpbacks swam just 15 feet away, there were conversations about living in Antarctica, the sounds sperm whales make, and the connections found in the world.

Humpback whale tail seen during the whale watching trip at the 2019 WhaleFest in Sitka, Alaska. 

Everyday during the festival,  students had the opportunity to walk through Totem Park and local museums to learn about the  culture and history of Sitka. At Sitka Sound Science Center, they  could collect  salmon samples for toxicology research, and at the UAS Sitka campus, they had the chance to dissect marine mammals, including seals and sea lions. 

Throughout the three days, various speakers presented their research, ranging  from coral bleachings to the elusive narwhal. 

“I feel at home,” Dr. Keisha Bahr told the audience at her presentation on coral. Bahr studies coral in the Gulf of Mexico and is assistant professor in marine biology at  Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. She said the warming ocean causes coral to bleach, leading to their starvation and eventual death.  In her research, she said the extinction of coral can “cause an avalanche of population declines and extinctions” of other marine organisms. 

During WhaleFest,  students also were able to meet the presenters in small groups and ask more questions about their research, their daily lives, and the tips they had for students getting into science. 

Students pose for a selfie at WhaleFest 2019. 
From left to right: Jessica Whitney, Mike Flunker, and Aragne Salazar 

“You guys are great, you’re paying attention and looking deeper,” Dr. Robert Suydam said in one of the discussions. 

Suydam is a Senior Wildlife Biologist for the North Slope Borough, where he studies  bowhead whales and belugas. He said migration patterns have changed for both species of whale with the changing sea ice. 

The final presenter was Castellini, interim dean of Graduate Studies at UAF and Vice President of Academics at the University of the Arctic. He tied the other eight presentations together under the concept of One Health, the idea that everythingon earth is connected and the health of the environment is essential to human  health. Castellini’s lecture described ocean changes  in recent history, from warming temperatures and plastic pollution to mass animal die offs and coral bleachings. 

Castellini is a member of the team that develops the program for the annual Sitka WhaleFest symposium. 

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