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Bristol Bay Beluga Project 2

September 11, 2012 

Continued: Bristol Bay Beluga Whale Health Assessment Research Project
September 7-10, 2012

Last week, Georgia Aquarium’s Director of Zoological Operations/Mammals & Birds, Eric Gaglione, joined researchers from federal and state agencies, universities and a select few accredited zoological institutions on a trip to Bristol Bay, Alaska to take part in a beluga whale health assessment research project. The goal of the study is to compliment baseline data gathered by this same team in 2008 related to the health status, distribution and movements of beluga whales in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Friday we gave you a first-hand look at some of the work being done by sharing Eric Gaglione’s field notes from the project. We are excited to share the most recent field notes we have received from him. If you haven’t seen them already, you can find last week’s field notes by clicking here. Be sure to check back for further posts from Eric as he shares his perspective on this important research and the team members working alongside him.


Georgia Aquarium Zoological Operations Field Log
September 7-10, 2012

Friday 9/7/12
Today was an interesting day. Weather conditions were the same as yesterday, so we did not go out on the water to attempt to handle beluga whales. Well, actually, we weren’t, and then we were, and then we weren’t again. Tomorrow’s forecast has reduced winds, and we are hopeful to resume the project in the morning.

We took advantage of the day to test the modifications to the Achilles inflatable boat motor, and it performed great. Brett Long from Alaska SeaLife Center, Manolo Castellote from the National Marine Mammal Lab, and I took ride from our launch site at Kanakanak (Ka-Nak-A-Nak) Beach to the port of Dillingham. It was an approximately one mile boat ride through some semi-rough seas. At the port we helped Manolo attach a DSG-Ocean underwater sound recording device to the base of the pier. It will remain on the pier for the few days to collect acoustic data for a research project carried on by Ellen Garland, NRC Post Doctorate at the National Marine Mammal Lab. The device records sound from 0-40kHz, which is the range for social vocalization signals of beluga whales, and the goal is to record these vocalizations from Bristol Bay belugas. This is the first attempt to get sound recordings on belugas from the Bristol Bay population. Manolo and his colleagues want to compare vocalizations of these whales with other populations all over Alaska to better understand the population structure of belugas in this region. Acoustics may complement the results that are obtained from genetic samples collected from all of the beluga populations of Alaska. Other areas of the state that have been recorded include Yakutat Bay, Cook Inlet, Bering Sea, Chukchi Sea, and Beaufort Sea. It is not clear if the whales that move between the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas are one single population or several independent groups. Manolo’s team believe any differences in the acoustic repertoire of different areas might help answer this question.

Eric Gaglione, Georgia Aquarium; Manolo Castellote, National Marine Mammal Laboratory. Photo Credit: Brett Long

This evening it was my night to cook for the team. I prepared an Italian family tradition; spaghetti sauce and meatballs! In addition to the countless hours spent supporting the project, the entire team takes turns preparing meals, washing dishes, and maintaining the bunkhouse. I was happy to hear everyone enjoyed the meal! The team is optimistic tomorrow will be a day for good conditions on the water. Stay tuned!

Left to right: Lisa Naples, Shedd Aquarium; Brett Long, Alaska SeaLife Center; Mandy Keogh, Mystic Aquarium; Russ Andrews, Alaska SeaLife Center

Saturday 9/8/12
What a fantastic day! The weather was incredible, the water conditions were great, and we handled two more whales for health assessments. In addition to the diagnostic sampling, the two belugas that were studied today also had hearing tests performed. This was the first time such test was conducted on wild beluga whales! Aran Mooney, a Marine Biologist from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, tested the whales using the same hearing assessment used for human infants (called auditory evoked potential or AEP). Using an underwater speaker attached to the whale’s lower jaw via a suction cup (or “jaw phone”), Aran played sounds and measured the brain response to the sound using suction cup sensors attached to the animal’s head and body. Aran reported that the testing worked well and both whales have very good hearing. The first animal, a sub adult female, heard all the way up to 150kHz, which is as high as beluga whales are believed to be able to hear. The second animal, an adult male, heard up to 100kHz, which is also very good (humans with good hearing can hear up to 20kHz). 

Team facilitating a beluga whale AEP hearing test. From left to right: Rod Hobbs, NOAA; Leslie Cornick, APU; Russ Andrews, UAF/ASLC; Lori Quakenbush, ADF&G. Photo Credit: Aran Mooney, WHOI

Hearing is very important to beluga whales as they rely on sound to scan their environment. The water of upper Bristol Bay can be very muddy and murky, with virtually no visibility, so the whales are frequently using sound to echolocate (a sort of biological sonar) to navigate their surroundings and find their food. This hearing study on Bristol Bay belugas is a great control study to compare to the endangered Cook Inlet belugas. The beluga whales living in Cook Inlet are exposed to more noise than whales in Bristol Bay and it would be interesting to assess if this increased noise impacts the whales’ hearing. Aran and his team are hopeful to test Cook Inlet belugas if the opportunity becomes available in the future.

After six days of bad weather, the team was very excited to be back on the water and working with the whales. As I write this blog it is 10:15pm AST (2:15am EST) and many members of the team are still processing tissue and blood samples collected from the animals today. It’s a very long day, but also very rewarding and we all feel privileged to be a part of such a unique project. Tomorrow’s weather is supposed to be even better than today so stay tuned!

Left to right: Manolo Castellote, National Marine Mammal Laboratory; Brett Long, Alaska Sea Life Center; Eric Gaglione, Georgia Aquarium


Sunday 9/9/12

The weather was beautiful again today, and we launched our boats at high tide, which was approximately 11am. We spotted a lot of whales along the south bank of the Nushagak River, but most were mother and calf pairs so we did not attempt to collect any of these animals for assessments. During this project we avoid disturbing young animals. Lori Quakenbush of Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) is our leader on the water and does a fantastic job working with the local native Alaskans of Bristol Bay Native Corporation who operate the main capture vessels. Using their tremendous experience navigating these waters and their traditional knowledge of beluga whales, they lead us to the whales and carefully and patiently locate appropriate sized animals to collect and handle for this study. I have learned a lot by watching Lori, and admire her ability to spot and track animals. She has been studying these beluga whales for many years. It is always fun to chat with her at dinner to learn more about the Bristol Bay beluga population, but also to talk about Hockey. Like me, Lori is an avid fan, but she is also a player and has quite a talented son who also plays the game.

It is believed this population of belugas does not leave the Bristol Bay area and are considered a resident population. Beluga whales living in the Cook Inlet (close to Anchorage, AK) are residents as well, making it easier to compare the Bristol Bay and Cook Inlet populations. The other three Alaskan beluga populations in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas are believed to migrate between all three areas.

George Biedenbach of Georgia Aquarium Conservation Field Station looks at brown bear tracks on Kanakanak Beach. Photo Credit: Katie Royer

After a few hours cruising the Nushagak River in search of suitable animals to consider handling, we stopped for lunch. We tied all of our boats together and drifted in the mouth of the Wood River where it meets the Nushagak. It was very surreal to sit there, enjoy lunch, and look at the landscape with the beautiful mountains in the background. After lunch we returned to the south bank of the Nushagak and headed westward until we came across a group of animal on a shallow mud flat. We successfully caught an 10ft female and handled her for full health assessment, satellite tag, and hearing test. She was a very robust, beautiful, white whale. After she was released we tracked a few more whales, but they were too elusive and we were not able to handle any of them. We headed back to the launch site at Kanakanak Beach and called it a day (at least as far as the animal handling goes as there were hours of lab work still to complete). The team back at the B&B had dinner ready. It was taco night and it was so great to have the food ready when we returned from a long day on the water. We’ve had two great days of weather and are hopeful for another tomorrow.


Monday 9/10/12
Today was supposed to be our last scheduled day on the water, but we’ve extended the trip by two days to make up for the days lost to bad weather. While the weather was good today, there was some difficulty actually finding Belugas. We planned to handle several whales, but after scanning the Nusagak and Wood Rivers, we were only able to collect just one beluga for a health assessment. We did see several younger animals, however there appears to be fewer belugas in the area. This is likely due to the fact the salmon season is nearing its end. The whales are known to spend less time in the rivers of this area when the fish are not as plentiful. The single beluga handled today was a very robust female measuring 12’6” long. This was a big, beautiful animal whose tail flukes measured 3 feet across! In addition to the health assessment, her hearing was tested, and a satellite transmitter was attached.

When working on the water, I am teamed up with Brett Long from Alaska SeaLife Center and George Biedenbach from Georgia Aquarium’s Conservation Field Station. Both of these guys have extensive animal handling and field experience. Brett knows the Alaskan waters very well as the Alaska SeaLife Center responds to stranded marine mammals and conducts numerous research projects in various parts of the state. George spends a lot of time on Florida’s inter-coastal waterways studying Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, and responding to marine animal strandings. Both Brett and George are very capable boat operators, and I’ve enjoyed learning from them and working alongside them on this project.

George Biedenbach, Georgia Aquarium Conservation Field Station; Brett Long, ASLC; Eric Gaglione, Georgia Aquarium. Photo Credit: Mandy Keogh

Brett, George and I play a significant role in handling the whales to facilitate the measurement, sampling, and testing related to the assessments. We travel in the inflatable boat called the Achilles and are the first to respond when an animal is initially collected. Our job is to safely hold the animals so the veterinarian, Dr. Carrie Goertz from the Alaska SeaLife Center, can examine and sample them. Our boat is a little slower than the other three boats used by the team. It is almost comical because we are ALWAYS trailing behind the other boats. Yesterday the fleet let us lead the charge for about five minutes. It was nice to see them travel in our wake for a change. I’m happy we are getting another two days on the water. We are hopeful the string of good weather continues and that we are successful handling a few more beluga whales before it is time to leave.

Dr. Carrie Goertz (ASLC) drawing a blood sample from a beluga whale as part of the sampling required for the health assessment. Eric Gaglione and George Biedenbach of Georgia Aquarium are holding the whale’s tail flukes steady for Dr. Goertz. Photo Credit: Kathy Bureck

Check back for further posts from Eric and the team from the shores of Bristol Bay, Alaska. Click here to read last week's field notes. Check here to read the following conclusion post. 


Header Photo: Manolo Castillote (NOAA/NMML) spots an adult beluga whale; Photo Credit: Aran Mooney (WHOI) 

Institution Key:
NOAA / NMML: National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration / National Marine Mammal Laboratory
APU: Alaska Pacific University
ADF&G: Alaska Department of Fish & Game
UAF / ASLC: University of Alaska Fairbanks / Alaska SeaLife Center
WHOI: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute 


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