The 17th annual Sitka Whalefest explored the past, present and future of the Arctic, focusing in part on the animal "winners and losers" climate change will create.
Winners, losers, observers, culprits: Whalefest explores Arctic sea change 110613 OUTDOORS 1 Capital City Weekly The 17th annual Sitka Whalefest explored the past, present and future of the Arctic, focusing in part on the animal "winners and losers" climate change will create.

Click Thumbnails to View
Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Story last updated at 11/6/2013 - 1:37 pm

Winners, losers, observers, culprits: Whalefest explores Arctic sea change

The 17th annual Sitka Whalefest explored the past, present and future of the Arctic, focusing in part on the animal "winners and losers" climate change will create.

It also provided some pretty darn interesting information, part of its goal of making science accessible. Scientists spoke on the subjects of their research - bowhead whales, polar bears, whaling, seals and narwhals, among others. The Whalefest also included marine wildlife cruises, a 5K run/walk, concert, and filmfest.

One of the biggest takeaways might be this: Climate change will throw the Arctic's ecosystems out of whack in ways that will sometimes be unpredictable. But the sizeable reduction in the thickness and geographic area of the ice isn't necessarily bad news for all Arctic animals. Some animals will come out ahead. Some will not. New species will also arrive, which will affect those that already live there.

"There is no black and white.... 'Winner and loser' is a perspective question depending on where you are," said Dr. Bodil Bluhm, who spoke on the "charismatic microfauna" of the Arctic and the effect a lack of summer sea ice may have on the ecosystem.

Sea ice reduction isn't necessarily bad for bowhead whales or ice seals. And it might not be bad for all people, for whom the changing Arctic offers a variety of economic opportunities - notably and ironically, the increased feasibility of oil and natural gas extraction.

Polar bears and some other species, on the other hand, are definitely in trouble, likely to become extinct in many of the areas they now currently populate. Coastal Alaskan residents affected by climate-change motivated erosion are also in trouble. And it looks like people are unlikely to change behaviors leading to climate change.

"The massiveness of the problem is intractable as far as I'm concerned," said Dr. Bill Streever, who spoke on "riding the changing tide" of the Arctic.

"The jury's still out. It's going to change, but it's not 100 percent negative," said Jan Straley, one of the event's founders.

The Cultural Exchange of Whaling Traditions

Don Sineti, a regular presence at Whalefest, an employee at the Nautical Maritime Museum in Connecticut, and the owner of a booming voice, spoke with Barrow resident and scientist Dr. Craig George on the cultural exchange between Yankee and Eskimo whaling traditions. He used that voice to sing several songs over the course of the presentation, all of which the audience joined in on in the later verses. (On our website, we're trying to include a recording of "Sailing Down to Ole Maui," a song Yankee whalers would sing when Arctic whaling was finished and it was time to head south.)

The opening of the Western Arctic bowhead whale commercial fishery "electrified the whaling community," they said.

It's a history rife with adventure, and, apparently, amputations: one captain amputated his own foot after an accident. He wrote that it gave him "considerable satisfaction" to safely perform his first surgical procedure.

Another lost his left arm in an accident. Later, he joked that whaling was so easy, you could do it with just one arm.

While George and Sineti spoke on the strong tradition of respect and reverence among Inupiat whalers, they also said did say that Yankees weren't "completely irreverent," perhaps learning in part from the Inupiat.

Bowhead Whales

The next day, Craig George, who works for the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, spoke on bowhead whales, which it seems have "finally recovered"100 years after the end of commercial whaling.

When George began studying the whales around 1980, scientists estimated there were 4,000 to 5,000 in the wild. Now, he estimates there are around 17,000. And they're getting fatter.

The bowhead whale is well adapted to life in the Arctic, using its bowed head to crack sea ice so it can breathe. George said he's seen whales crack through ice up to a foot thick. Native hunters have said they've seen the whales crack through ice up to three feet thick - in other words, they can break ice thick enough to support a small bulldozer.

"It appears to be very rare that they drown due to ice," he said.

Arctic bowheads are specially adapted to the temperatures of the Arctic. Their core temperature is around 92 degrees, but their pectoral fins are about 41 to 50 degrees, he said.

"They just heat the parts they need, like the viscera and the brain," he said.

It also appears bowheads may use their flukes and their 13-foot tongues to convey heat. Some heat conservation pipes are virtually identical to what scientists find when taking cross-sections of a fluke.

They also have incredibly slow metabolisms and live a very long time. Stone weapons found in some recently taken whales went out of use around 1880, he said.

The big news, however, is their recovery, which George attributes to "good management and pristine habitat."

"It's funny, bad news travels fast, but good news, like this amazing recovery, it's like 'eh...' nobody cares about good news," he said after his talk.

Polar Bears

For polar bears, the news is not good. "If the polar bears are going to persist in this world... they're going to be greatly reduced and geographically restricted," said research zoologist George Durner. "Polar bears fall into the 'loser' category."

About 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears live at "very low densities" throughout the Arctic.

Durner said he's seen a big change since he began working with the bears in 1992. There are now more female cubs with year-old bears and fewer with yearlings, meaning fewer cubs are living. Before 1995, the survival rate was around 65 percent, he said. Now, it's around 40 or 42 percent. Because the sea ice is melting, they're having to swim longer and longer periods in open water. One bear he tracked for nine days across 425 miles of open water. Then she had another big swim. When he encountered her again, she no longer had her cub and she'd lost 20 percent of her body weight.

"We're seeing more of that in the Southern Beaufort and the Chukchi Sea," he said.

Predation on nesting snow geese populations in Hudson Bay is a prime example of how the effect on one animal can spread to other animals, he said.

Forty-five years in the future, it's likely polar bears will be extinct from many areas in their current range.


Human development in the north, specifically to do with oil, gas, mining, and hydropower, has been a big motivation to research and learn about narwhals, said Pierre Richard, who spoke on his research with the animals.

Narwhals can dive more than 5,000 feet deep in their search for halibut, shrimp, squid, and other prey, with the deepest and longest dives lasting around 25 minutes.

They swim upside down on the ocean floor as well as on the surface, which can lead to confusion for researchers trying to get an accurate count.

They've discovered that there are around 10,000 in the fjords along the coasts of Baffin Island.

They also discovered for every narwhal seen on the surface, there are two more below: they spend about 33 percent of their time on the surface of the water.

In Canadian waters, Richard estimates there are between 75,000 and 90,000 narwhals -70 percent or more of the world's population.

One potential danger due to climate warming is the expansion of predators into narwhal habitat. Scientists have been seeing narwhals in shallow passages where they never saw them before.

"To get away from killer whales, they'll do anything," Richard said.

On the other hand, at this point they're doing relatively well.

"They're not rare. They're not endangered. They're still enigmatic," he said.

The future, great and small

Yulia Ivashchenko spoke on "historical whaling and the future of large whales in the Arctic."

Commercial whaling left lasting damage on some species, specifically right whales and sperm whales, Ivashchenko said. Humpbacks, gray whales, and fin whales have been resilient; right whales are "on the brink" and bowheads are doing well, but have an uncertain future. Global warming and ocean acidification will lead to unpredictable changes. Increased activity in the Arctic could lead to increased noise and pollution, as well as increased potential for ship strikes.

Dr. Bill Streever spoke on changes including ocean acidification, shoreline erosion, visually demonstrating the shrinking of sea ice by using data over the last few decades. He also spoke on the opportunities in industry, nonprofits, government, academics and entrepreneurship resulting from all these changes.

"I think we're going to continue to take the easy road, and the easy road is the energy-rich hydrocarbon molecule," he said.

Dr. Bodil Bluhm said the Arctic contains about 5,000 species, including vertebrates and invertebrates. "You can't change one thing without affecting some other part of the system," she said.

This is something closing speaker Dr. Michael Castellini emphasized. "We absolutely are living on one planet, and we have an issue we need to face in terms of climate change and other problems," he said, adding that life is connected "from microfauna all the way up to the whales."

"This is one of the most important issues of our time.... It's fascinating stuff. We've never had a new ocean, but we've got a new ocean."


Straley said some of the goals of the festival are to generate an interest in the natural world, to help people understand how important science is to people's daily lives, and to help kids understand how relatively simple it is to become a scientist.

That's definitely the case for 10-year-old Levi Danielson, who won the book "Letters to a Young Scientist" with a question he asked during one of the talks.

"Right now, I want to be a botanist," he said.

Whalefest is organized by the Sitka Sound Science Center.

For more information go to sitkawhalefest.org.