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:

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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:

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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:

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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).

-Kathy

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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!

Wild Sounds in Glacier Bay

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Glacier Bay is one of the wildest places on Earth. To visit up-bay by kayak, small boat or foot is to experience a kind of wild purity in all things: purity of light and reflections; the raw power of the glacier-scoured landscape; the integrity of wild sounds.

I really noticed the latter during a kayak trip to the East Arm in July. We were up near McBride Inlet, camped on the beach-skirt of a crumbling mountain. Early one morning, after a night of heavy rain, I woke to the thumps and rattles of a decent-sized rockslide on the mountainside above. The sound seemed so close that I scrambled from my tent into the gray dawn, expecting boulders to come smashing through the brush at any moment. Of course the slide was over, and it had been far away after all. But I paced the beach for a while, walking off my adrenaline rush and looking at our tiny, bright tents against the tangle of beach-fringe alder. We were so fragile, and so deep within the wildness of this place that even the sounds subsumed us: the rush of rain-swollen streams, the reports of boulders smacking into the ocean at the base of White Thunder Ridge, the breaths of seals and whales.

Gustavus naturalist Hank Lentfer has been working on a wonderful project capturing those pure, wild sounds for Glacier Bay National Park. You can hear some of his recordings on his website. Here’s a link to a lovely one of trumpeting humpback whales.

Upcoming event: Kids’ program!

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This Saturday, we’ve been invited by the Juneau Public Libraries to do a kids’ program as part of Alaska Authors Month. Kathy will be reading the book, sharing some experiences from the illustration and writing process, and leading a kids’ art activity in which kids will get to design their own whale flukes. There should also be an opportunity to buy the book, and to get it signed. Cheryl is currently in Little Port Walter tagging fish, but she might make it back in time… 

So here are the particulars:

  • Where: Mendenhall Valley Public Library
  • When: Saturday, October 19, 1 pm
  • Cost: FREE

Send an email to info@spotthewhale.com if you have any questions. Hope to see you there!

Flame’s story continues!

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Here’s another big event we missed while in Glacier Bay this summer: Flame is a mother again! Earlier this year we made a couple of posts about one of our favorite local whales, a female nicknamed Flame. We had observed Flame on January 1, and then a friend filmed her in March. The two dates were so close that we thought she had stayed the winter in Southeast Alaska.

Well… maybe. But turns out the saga had just begun. This summer, Flame was sighted in the Juneau area again–but this time she wasn’t alone. She had a new calf.

So. There are a few possibilities:

  1. Flame left Southeast Alaska in March or thereafter, raced to Hawaii (or Mexico), gave birth, and sped back in time for the summer feeding season, calf in tow.
  2. Flame left Southeast Alaska in March or thereafter, cruised off somewhere closer than Hawaii or Mexico, gave birth, and cruised back, calf in tow.
  3. Flame stayed here the whole time and gave birth nearby (very unlikely, based on current knowledge about humpbacks).

In any case, it appears Flame stayed well into winter, feeding, while she was pregnant.

This is Flame’s second calf in two years. We nicknamed the first one Spark; we think Ember would be a good name for this new one. Interestingly, both calves have been quite precocious, lifting their flukes high in the air when diving or playing… an unusual behavior for young calves. In 2011, Cheryl even watched Flame apparently teaching Spark to lift its flukes when diving.

The photo above is of Ember’s lovely little (8-foot-wide) flukes. It was taken by photographer Barbara Gillespie. You can see more of Barbara’s photos of Ember, and lots more, at her website. Thanks, Barbara, for sharing this photo!

Sighting Spot

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When You See Flukes has been out in the world for a couple of weeks now, and it has been delightful to see where it’s traveling. A great example: we just received a wonderful email from Pat and Mike Conchatre, who bought the book during a whalewatch tour in Juneau last month. When they returned home and went through their photos from the tour, they discovered that one set of flukes looked very familiar: They belong to Spot, the “cover whale” for the book! I’ve posted their wonderful photo of Spot’s flukes above. 

Since both Cheryl and I have been in the Glacier Bay area all summer, we’ve not had a chance to see any of our familiar Juneau whales. Seeing Spot’s photo was like hearing good news about an old friend. Thanks, Pat and Mike!