Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Way of Whales Workshop

On January 23rd I had the opportunity to accompany Libby, Chrissy and Sue to the Way of Whales Workshop on Whidbey Island.  I had a great time visiting information tables and learning about the amazing whale research going on in this region of the world.

Sue, Libby, Chrissy, and Heather displaying items from the PTMSC Orca Project

Two researchers, Dr. Mike Ford and Dr. Fred Sharpe, gave presentations on each of their different research projects.   Dr. Ford is conducting paternity analysis in the Southern Resident killer whale population, trying to determine both the mother and father of offspring.  Identifying mothers is not a difficult task since offspring often remain with their mother for life, but identifying fathers proves to be a much more difficult task.  In order to piece together the "who's dad" puzzle, Mike Ford is collecting tissue and fecal samples as sources for genetic material.  This research faces one major problem- identifying the fathers of older whales is much more difficult because potential fathers may have already died and therefore are not available for sampling.  If this research continues on for several more years it is neat to think they may eventually have an almost complete catalog of both parents for nearly all Southern Resident whales.

Dr. Fred Sharpe is conducting a variety of research projects about humpback whales and looking at their global recovery.  Along with speaking at the workshop, Dr. Sharpe also did a series of talks in this region on the humpback's return to the Puget Sound. 

Humpback whales feed very differently from orcas; in place of teeth they feed via a filtering structure called baleen.  Baleen is made from keratin, the same material as our fingernails, and is lined in the mouth of these whales and often looks like hair.  One key reason for the humback's population resiliance is their generalist diet.  Consuming a wide variety of schooling fish and crustaceans, humpbacks are not limited to a specific food source.  These whales are very adaptable! Another neat thing I learned from this talk is that Humpbacks have spindle neurons. Spindle neurons are associated with language, self-awareness, and compassion in humans. These whales have been seen helping out seals by letting them onto their backs to avoid a hungry killer whale.

Towards the end of his talk Dr. Sharpe showed video taken using a National Geographic Crittercam.  These cameras are suction cupped to the back of the whale and allows us to see the world through the eyes of these amazing creatures!  Footage of the Crittercam being used on Humpbacks is not yet available online, but to get an idea check out the photograph of a Crittercam on a pilot whale.

Photo by:  National Geographic

For more information on Dr. Fred Sharpe and his ongoing humpback work with Alaska Whale Foundation please visit their website:

One of the last video clips Fred Sharpe showed was of a young researcher leaning over the side of a boat and sticking one of these Crittercams on a passing whale.  I couldn't help but smile at the idea of that young researcher being me one day!  Who knows what the future might hold.

Funding for the PTMSC Orca Project is provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Before ending this blog I must mention a radio segment our very own Chrissy McClean was interviewed for last week!  She had the opportunity to speak about toxins found in whales and the Orca Project here at PTMSC.  Check it out!

Heather Jones
Orca Project Coordinator

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