fluke shadow


We got an interesting request a couple of weeks ago from Chris Gabriele, a whale biologist at Glacier Bay National Park: would we be willing to come out to the park and help give flukes to a tail-less whale?

Snow was a humpback whale first identified in the waters of Glacier Bay in the 1970s. She was struck and killed by a cruise ship in 2001. Local volunteers and GBNP personnel cleaned and collected her bones and sent them off to be re-articulated by a company in Maine. In 2014 the bones returned to Bartlett Cove, where they were put on display. The huge skeleton, about 45 feet long, is a wonderful addition to the park. It’s strange and beautiful and awe-inspiring, and thousands of people marvel at it. I always spend some time looking at it when I’m out there; I posted some sketches and thoughts about it here.

But for many people, there is something missing–some satisfaction absent, a question un-answered: where are the flukes? Flukes are perhaps the most iconic parts of whales–especially of humpback whales, who often lift their flukes above the water’s surface. But there are no bones in whale flukes; their shape is created by dense, fibrous tissue covered with fat and skin. So as interesting as Snow’s skeleton is, it feels out of balance, somehow lacking, without the flukes.

Hence Chris’s request. Could we somehow add flukes to the skeleton display? There had been a lot of talk about ways to do that; one idea was to outline them with metal on the skeleton somehow (that’s what was done for the killer whale skeleton at the Gustavus library). But Chris felt (and we agreed) that the bones should speak for themselves–the flukes should be subtle. How about creating an outline of them on the ground below?

We started with a photo of Snow’s flukes, plus their dimensions (measured when she washed ashore). First we calculated where the flukes would lie, in relation to the skeleton. Then we measured out the flukes’ 15-foot-plus width, tip to tip, and their 3.5-foot depth, and marked the tips and notch with stones. We laid the rope out to “sketch” the shape on the ground, then dug a little trench to draw the outline. Next we were off to the nearby beach with a bucket, to gather golf-ball-sized granite stones, which we hauled up to the work site and set in the trench, forming a pale, pebbly outline.

It looked pretty good, but felt incomplete somehow. Perhaps we should fill in the outline… we went back down to the beach and gathered buckets of coarse sand, poured it in our stony outline, smoothed it, and stepped back… Perfect! The dark sand, peppered with white shards of barnacle shells, created a subtly different value and texture below the skeleton: the shadow of Snow’s long-gone flukes. In the photo above, the caudal bones are just above the edge of the picture.

Public Market coming up!

Next Friday, Saturday, and Sunday is the annual Juneau Public Market–come visit the Spot the Whale booth! We’ll have cards, books, magnets, mugs, pendants, hand-painted ornaments, and more.

If you can’t make it to the market, and you’d like to order some of our gifts and artwork, contact us, or visit http://www.spotthewhale.com.

See you there!

spotthewhale public market spotthewhale ornaments spotthewhale pendants

Sad news

In sad resonance with the recent installation of the skeleton of “Snow” at Bartlett Cove, a well-known local whale has been found dead near Juneau. We humans called her “Max”, or, less romantically and more scientifically, Whale #539 in the Southeast Alaska catalog.

Necropsy results indicate that she was probably killed when struck in the head by a ship.

She was known to frequent Glacier Bay and Icy Strait. It’s interesting how, with the advent of fluke pattern identification, we can begin to compose for a wild whale the kind of obituary that’s ordinarily reserved for humans and our domestic creatures. For example, “Max” was first seen in the 1970s, so we know she was at least 40 years old. She was a mother to at least five calves, and grandmother to at least three.

Of course the obituary the whales might compose would be so much richer…

You can read more about Max’s death and the investigation, and see some photos, on the Alaska Dispatch News webpage. You can see Max’s fluke on this page of the Southeast Alaska humpback whale fluke catalog. She’s number 539.

The skeleton at the park

whaleskull-sketch whale skeleton BC









The most recent post was about the orca skeleton at the Gustavus Library… now here’s one about our other local whale bones—the 45-foot-long skeleton of “Snow” that is currently being installed at Bartlett Cove, in Glacier Bay National Park. The bones arrived last week on the ferry, and within just days the re-articulation is starting to take shape. I went out on Friday with some friends to see the progress, and had time to do a few sketches in the drizzle outside the shelter.

A humpback’s skull, I discovered, is utterly alien territory! I love skulls, and have sketched an illustrated hundreds, but this one had me tilting my head a lot—just trying to locate the analogues of familiar mammalian skull features was a challenge. For example, after observing and drawing for about 45 minutes, I finally realized that areas I had been thinking of as “forehead” were actually more analogous to the hollows between zygomatic arches and nasal opening…

Plus, the whale skull presented such different shapes from different angles! From the side, like a bird, from the front and back, like…?

I realized that I didn’t put anything in for scale in my sketch page, so I’ve also added a photo of the crew at work placing the skull.

For more on the Snow project, you can go to the project page on the NPS website.

The whale in the library


Last February, the wonderful Gustavus Public Library got a wonderful addition: the skeleton of a killer whale calf. The animal was found dead in Glacier Bay in 2005. Over the next several years the bones were cleaned (a smelly and long process), then rearticulated into a complete skeleton. Community members assisted in the re-articulation process, which was led by Lee Post, a specialist from Homer. On completion, the skeleton was welcomed to the library with song and dance—including presentations, music, and a ceremony by members of the Hoonah Indian Association, who gave the whale a special name: Keet’k’ (little killer whale). 

Now Keet’k’ swims above the entrance to the kids’ reading room. I love reading and researching in her shadow, glancing up every now and then to study her magnificent and graceful bones.

You can read more about the project here and here.

Whale Waters











We’ve returned to Gustavus for the summer season, and already this remarkable area is demonstrating its summer abundance. Gustavus is a small community on a broad glacial outwash fan fronting Icy Strait, at the mouth of Glacier Bay. This region is a confluence of powerful tidal, wind-driven, and oceanic currents, spiced with a generous outpouring of mineral sediments and other nutrients from the glaciers of Glacier Bay. The result is a swirling broth of ocean that feeds billions of living things, from zooplankton to Chinook salmon. Each spring and summer, Icy Strait and Glacier Bay are a gathering place for dozens of humpback whales.

Glacier Bay National Park can be a good place to watch whales, but it is not a whale-watching destination. Within the Park, the rules for the way we behave around whales are considerably more restrictive than they are in other parts of Southeast Alaska. Before they are issued a permit to enter the Park, boaters are briefed on these special rules of Glacier Bay. For example, nowhere in Southeast Alaska can you approach a whale within 100 yards—but if you are boating in Glacier Bay, you must stay at least a quarter of a mile away. The goal is to minimize the impacts of boat traffic on whales in this very important feeding area.

One key element of whale protection in Glacier Bay National Park is the establishment of “Whale Waters”—special seasonal sub-regions within the Park that are considered especially sensitive to boat traffic. In Whale Waters, not only must boaters stay a quarter mile from whales, but they must restrict their boat speed  to 13 knots or less, and maintain a steady course in mid-channel.

Whale Waters restrictions usually start in mid-May. This year, however, with several whales already in the area, Whale Waters have started early.

It’s a good sign. Welcome back, whales.


Artwork update

It’s warming up, the snow is melting, wrens and juncos are singing… spring is approaching! And we’re busy creating this summer’s stock of fluke pendants, and planning for book and art sales this summer. Caught up in spring energy and artistic momentum, I decided to do a new art series based on one of the illustrations in our new children’s book, When You See Flukes. 

The illustration in question is about migration—it’s a map showing humpback whales’ breeding and feeding areas. Inspired by old nautical charts, I gave it a kind of vintage parchment look. But when it came to showing the details of land and sea, I figured whales would label their maps very differently than we do… so it became a whale’s map, like this:


A map needs a compass rose—and I planned to include one of those standard old-timey ones. But then I figured a whale wouldn’t have geometric shapes as the pointers for its compass rose, so I created the Octocompass:


The Octocompass was so much fun that I decided to delve more deeply into the idea of animal-centered compass roses. With a larger image, I can add more details, including some of the classic pointer spikes, and concentric rings—in this case, the rings contain details about each animal’s world.

I was going to start with a bigger version of the Octocompass… but why not start with whales? So here’s the first in the compass rose series:


The moon, for the tides, the blue and starry skies that the whales migrate beneath, surrounded by the food that enables them to make their annual journeys.

And the whale is, of course, our Juneau friend Spot (SEAK 1434 in the NOAA catalog).


Live whale audio from Hawaii

Since we’re not going to go to Hawaii this year, it is with mixed feelings that we perform the annual ritual of tuning in to the Jupiter Foundation’s live whale song audio stream from Puako, on the kona coast of Hawaii Island. It’s not that we don’t WANT to hear it. The cacophony of groans, moans, tremolos, shrieks, and grumbles—the layered voices of up to six or more humpbacks—is haunting and hilarious, puzzling and bizarre, and always a thrill to hear. It’s just that after being in those warm waters, hovering above the reef, breath held and ear pressure equalized, and listening to a truly live stream of whale sound (the kind that shakes the bones), listening to the web stream is a weak substitute.

Anyway, check it out yourself (click on “live whale audio” at the top of the page), and while you’re at it, explore the Jupiter Research Foundation’s site. They’ve got some innovative technology for listening in on the natural world, and fascinating stories about what they’ve encountered. There’s even a webcam trained out on that magnificent view from Puako. It’s not the same as being there, but it helps a little during what can be a damp and gloomy Alaskan winter.

Humpback bottom-feeding techniques

We just came across some news about a study of bottom feeding by humpback whales. It’s fascinating!

People have theorized about this type of feeding behavior for many years. Circumstantial evidence (such as scraping and scarring on the whales’ rostrums) suggests they do swim very close to the bottom. This study provides some of the most thorough evidence and descriptions of the behavior seen to date.

To study the behavior, the researchers attached data loggers to humpbacks in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The results allowed the scientists to map the whales’ paths as they dived, fed, and surfaced. They also recorded the orientations of the whales’ bodies. The results suggest that the whales feed by swimming fairly slowly just above the bottom, rotating and in some cases even rolling completely over as they skim the substrate.

This isn’t the classic “lunge feeding” technique that many of us are familiar with, where whales accelerate into a school of fish with mouths open, and their ventral pleats billow out from the water and fish rushing in. This bottom feeding process is slower and steadier—in fact, the data loggers captured spikes of acceleration for each strong fluke beat, and there were few of those as the whales skimmed and rolled on the bottom.

The behavior does have one more familiar dimension: cooperation. Many of the whales in the study appeared to be foraging together and may have been coordinating their behaviors.

The researchers also put a National Geographic “Crittercam” on the whales, resulting in some nifty footage, including good evidence that the whales are targeting sand lance.

The study was published in July by Ware et al in Marine Mammal Science. Here’s a link to the journal article. The visualizations of the whales’ feeding paths are wonderful. 

And here’s a link to the National Geographic write-up. Make sure you watch the end, to see the very cool Crittercam footage of a breach—from the whale’s perspective. Watch how it accelerates as it approaches the surface!