PUBLISHED: 4:21 PM on Wednesday, October 31, 2007
Celebrate cetaceans at Sitka Whale Fest
Beneath the Ocean's surface lives a foreign community. When kayaking or boating across the blue surface, which divides these worlds, one can never be completely sure what swims beneath. Though whatever is under there is certainly magnificent. For more than a decade people have been gathering in Sitka every year to celebrate marine wildlife. Humpback whales, among many other marine mammals in Alaska are considered endangered by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

In the fall, Humpbacks congregate in Sitka Sound to feed before embarking on their long journey south in mid-January. The people who organize and attend the Sitka Whale Fest come from diverse backgrounds, yet are brought together during these three days to celebrate and contemplate the coexistence of the marine and human world.

This year's theme for Whale Fest is, "Marine Mammal and Human Interaction." These three days will be packed with something for everyone, from art classes and a 10k and 5k race to nightly concerts and auctions. Daily symposiums will be held showcasing world-class speakers including Peter Ross, Lorrie Rea and Mike Castellini. There are three talks per day, all on current research most of which is previously unpublished. Each day has a specific theme as well.

Photo by Naomi Judd
  For more than a decade people have been gathering in Sitka every year to celebrate marine wildlife.
Whale Fest is very much an educational event.

"The philosophy of Whale Fest is education," said Phyllis Hackett, Whale Fest director. "People learn in different ways. Some people learn by going to the art class, others learn better from the poster sessions or listening to speakers, and so we have tried over the years to incorporate several ways to interest people so they can learn and become more aware of the marine environment."

Becoming more aware includes seeing marine wildlife with your own eyes as well. A morning whale watching cruise in Sitka Sound will be held Nov. 3-4., with proceeds supporting Whale Fest.

People visit from afar to attend the annual festivities. More than 170 people register for the symposiums alone each year and more than half of those are from out of town. "Whale Fest attracts students from UAS Sitka and Juneau, scientists, and those of the general public who are just plain interested," Hackett said. "People come from all over. This year there is someone coming from England and people are coming from Florida, New England, and all over Alaska to name a few."

College students may also gain credit for attending and many will present their current research during the daily North Pacific Marine Research Poster Sessions.

The diversity of attendees presents a difficult task to symposium speakers who have been specially elected to come and speak.

"Whale Fest is for everyone who's interested from those that are here because they think marine mammals are cute to those who have PhD's and are here for the research. The scientists who come to speak are challenged with communicating with all kinds of people. They need to give their information in laymen's terms as well as scientific terms."

These presentations and discussions touch on many aspects of marine wildlife including Killer Whales, Steller Sea Lions, harbor seals and many other whales. The conflicts between people and marine mammals including the impact of ecotourism, acoustic ecology and personal impact will also be main topics. Anyone who has so much as set a toe in the water will find something of interest and hopefully leave having learned something new.

Even the silent auction is largely marine related. A couple of years ago a tradition started in which 20 whales about 15 inches or so in size are given to artists to decorate and are then auctioned off.

Sitka is a beautiful place to study outstanding marine wildlife and an accommodating town. Events fill up quickly so make sure to reserve your spot and sign up for events as soon as you can. For a full list of events and information on registration and accommodations visit