How do I love whales? Let me count the ways

December 06, 2000

GALVESTON - Insomniacs count sheep, bankers count money, umpires count balls and strikes. Bernd Wursig counts whales.

The Texas A&M University at Galveston marine researcher is on a mission that, in ecological terms, counts plenty. No one knows exactly how many of the 50-ton, 50-foot long Bowhead whales are out there. One thing we do know, says Wursig, an expert on the subject, is that there aren't as many as there used to be.

"The Bowhead whale was hunted intensely by whalers worldwide in the 19th century and by Russian whalers in this century," Wursig explains.

"In Alaska, the native Americans there respect and revere the Bowhead whale, as they have done for centuries. In some areas of the world, there are groups of several thousand or so Bowhead whales, but in the Okhotsk Sea of far east Russia, there may be only 100 to 200 left. Our job is to determine the best possible estimate of Bowhead whales in the region."

Funding the project is the North Slope Borough, which is the largest county in Alaska and also the largest in the United States. The Inuits, the Native Americans of the Alaskan North Slope, are helping to coordinate the count, most of which will occur in the Shantar Island region in the Sea of Okhotsk.

So how do you count whales?

One way, Wursig says, is by photo identification. By taking photographs of Bowhead whales in the area and building up a catalog of pictures, a reliable estimate can by made. "If we keep re-capturing the same whales in our photographs, we can make statistically based estimates of how many are out there," he explains.

Another way is by genetic testing. By taking genetic samples of Bowheads in the area, Wursig and his team can determine how much in-breeding of the whales has occurred and get a more accurate reading than by the photographic method, "although we'll use both to get the best possible estimate we can," he adds.

Helping him in the project is Steve MacLean, a graduate student at Texas A&M at Galveston who comes in handy - he's a native Inuit from Point Barrow who knows Alaskan Bowheads well.

As whales go, Wursig says, the Bowhead is unusual in that it is a medium size species of whale but it has the thickest blubber of any whale, a prized commodity of whalers.

"The Bowhead whale doesn't migrate much and always stays near ice," Wursig adds.

"It only inhabits certain areas of the northern and western Pacific Ocean. Bowheads can still be hunted by the Inuits, but only a few each year can be killed and permits are strictly regulated. The Inuits have taken some of their oil industry revenue and funded environmental projects, several of them dealing with the Bowhead whale. They are to be commended for managing their resources very wisely."

Wursig also hopes to gather other information about the Bowhead, especially regarding its feeding behavior. How much food comes from the surface of the water, below the surface, the density of food intake, and the energy used by the whale to obtain its food are some questions he hopes to answer.

"If the whale is having to use a lot of its energy to go deeper for food, it can tell us about the ecosystem of the area," he says. "It could mean its food supply is dwindling, and if so, what are the reasons behind it." Wursig says the counting and describing of the Bowhead whales should be completed by July.
Contact: Keith Randall at 979-845-4644 or Bernd Wursig at 409-740-4413.

Texas A&M University

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