Researchers set out to the North Pacific this weekend on a four-month mission to learn more about humpback whales, which have had their population decimated by more than a century of commercial whaling.
The voyage of the federal research ship McArthur II marks the kickoff of a three-year, $3 million multinational effort to assess the region’s humpback population.
“This is the largest whale project that has ever been attempted — the most people and the biggest ocean,” said Jay Barlow, chief scientist on the ship, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fleet.
Scientists and volunteers along the Pacific Rim are participating in the count, including Japan, Russia, Mexico, Canada, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the U.S. coast. The project is bankrolled by the NOAA.
Humpbacks feed in northern waters over the summer and then head south in winter to breed off Hawaii, Japan, Mexico and Central America.
5,000-mile one-way migrations
They are believed to make the longest migration of any mammal, as much as 5,000 miles one way, said John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research, who will be conducting small-boat counts on the West Coast.
That makes international cooperation essential, said the researchers. Up to now, “we knew about each other’s research,” but there had been little formal collaboration, Calambokidis said.
Scientists believe the North Pacific population had dropped to about 2,000 when California whaling stations were shut down in 1966. The huge mammals were hunted for their oil and for use as fertilizer and dog food.
They’re now believed to number more than 10,000, Barlow said, and the population appears to be growing 6 percent to 8 percent a year. But humpbacks remain a mystery to humans.
“We see so little of the humpback whale. ... All its life is conducted under water,” Barlow said. And while 10,000 may sound like a lot of animals, spread over the vast Pacific “they can be very difficult to find.”
McArthur II will travel north to explore feeding grounds along the coasts of British Columbia and Alaska, west to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and then east to the south Bering Sea before heading home to NOAA’s Lake Union dock north of downtown.
Listening devices on board
When whales are spotted, researchers will approach on inflatable vessels to photograph their tail flukes — the undersides, visible when they dive, are as individual as fingerprints.
The vessel also will tow an array of hydrophones to listen for whales below the surface. The singing tends to occur only at the winter breeding grounds, Barlow said, but humpbacks do make sounds while feeding.
Tissue samples less than an inch thick will be taken by crossbow so researchers can collect genetic data and learn about toxin levels.
The whales are now protected under the Endangered Species Act and by the International Whaling Commission, but humpback meat can still sometimes be found in Japanese markets, Barlow said.
Project background is online at http://swfsc.nmfs.noaa.gov/prd/PROJECTS/splash.