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

See you there!

spotthewhale public market spotthewhale ornaments spotthewhale pendants

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!

Upcoming event: Kids’ program!


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 if you have any questions. Hope to see you there!

Flame’s story continues!


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


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! 

At last!

Our new children’s book, When You See Flukes, is here! It’s a 32-page, full color, illustrated book for primary-grade children (but you’ll find plenty in there to interest older kids and adults as well!) To order individual copies, email us. Or if you’re interested in retailing the book, contact our distributor, Taku Graphics.

Eye of the whale

We just got the advance copies of When You See Flukes, and I was flipping through looking at the print quality on the illustrations. It’s always a little unnerving to see this stage, because you notice color variations from the originals… but pretty soon that fades and you come to terms with the results.

A couple of the illustrations caught my attention this time–the ones that show the whales’ eyes. In doing these paintings, I studied many photos of humpback whale eyes, and read quite a bit about them. But they’re still tricky and mysterious. Underwater fish-eye cameras don’t, I’m sure, do them any kind of justice. Still, I wanted the illustrations to convey the intelligence and attention of the whales, and for we visually-oriented primates, the eyes are really important.

whale-eyeA humpback whale’s eye is fundamentally built like ours, but there are some striking differences. Of course the whale eye is bigger (about the size of a navel orange). The sclera (outer membrane) is very thick and strong. There are muscles that control not just the turn of the eye and the motion of the lids, but also the protrusion of the entire eyeball. The cornea is not smoothly rounded, but has a flattened area. The pupil, when contracted, forms a kidney shape. The lens is spherical where ours is flattened. There is a substantial light-reflecting membrane (tapetum lucidum) on the retina, and the retina also has not one but two areas of high sensitivity (foveae).

All of these differences appear to help maximize the whale’s visual abilities in its ocean environment. The thick sclera helps hold the eye shape under hydrostatic pressure. The ability to protrude the eyes probably gives the whale a greater range of vision, and may even grant it binocular vision in the region below its throat. The irregular cornea may allow the eye to function like bifocals–helping the eye to focus both in the water and in the air. The kidney-shaped contracted pupil creates two fields of view on each eye, with light directed to the two foveae–a nifty trick that could (?) help with underwater or above-water vision. The tapetum lucidum maximizes the light that passes through the retina, assisting with vision in the depths.

For more thoughts and information on the vision of whales, see this recent article in The Atlantic.

A new study on the culture of humpback foraging behavior


Bubble-net feeding isn’t a new behavior in the Juneau area (it was described by Dr. Charles Jurasz in the 1970s). But for decades, it still felt rare to us Juneau whale-observers. You’d hear one or two reports in a summer, and if you were lucky enough to see it yourself, it warranted breathless boasting to your naturalist friends. In the past five years, though, it feels like we’re seeing this cooperative technique more and more frequently. It’s still incredibly thrilling, but it seems like the thrills come more often.

Now this isn’t necessarily all due to an actual increase in frequency of the behavior. Part of it could be an artifact of more whale-watching boats being out on the water, providing more observations. Some of it could just be the result of our rapidly-increasing population of whales. Still–what if it really is becoming more widespread among the whales? The behavior is obviously very highly coordinated–it appears that each whale in the group has a fixed role or position, reflected in the consistent arrangement when they emerge at the surface (see the photo above). Questions arise: How and why do groups form and dissolve? How do new whales join? How do novice whales learn what’s expected of them?

I got to thinking about group bubble net feeding when I read an article about a different humpback feeding technique, in New England. The behavior, known as lob-tail feeding, involves tail slaps at the surface followed by bubble-feeding. It arose shortly after a drop in herring populations in the late 1970s.

In a recently-published paper in the journal Science, Allen, Weinrich, Hoppitt, and Rendell analyzed 27 years of observations of this “foraging innovation.” According to the study, lob-tail feeding rose in frequency and diffused through the population during subsequent years when sand lance populations were high. The analysis provides strong support for a model of cultural transmission–that is, the evidence suggests the whales are learning the technique from each other, not independently inventing it.

The study invites comparison and speculation… Are we seeing a similar increase in the Southeast Alaskan technique? And what about diffusion not just to other whales, but to other regions? As of this year, cooperative bubble net feeding is not known outside of southern Alaska. Will it eventually be transmitted to other humpback populations? It’s fun to be at the epicenter of such as mystery!

For a lot more on humpback social foraging research in Southeast Alaska, check out the Alaska Whale Foundation’s website.