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Freitag shares a wealth of marine expertise at ‘Ask UAS’
A whale feeds near the breakwater on Nov. 16, 2018 at Thomas Basin. Whale watchers spotted humpbacks bubble feeding near Berth 1 for that entire week. Staff photo by Dustin Safranek


By DANELLE LANDIS
Daily News Staff Writer

Gary Freitag shared his experiences and knowledge in his “Whales in Southeast Alaska and Marine Mammal Interactions” Thursday evening, at a University of Alaska Ketchikan Campus Library “Ask UAS” presentation.

Freitag, a University of Alaska Fairbanks Professor of Oceanography as well as the SeaGrant Marine Advisory Program agent for Ketchikan, began his talk with a listing and description of the mammal species that swim in the waters of Southeast Alaska.

He displayed slides with illustrations of each of the species, pointing out the area’s species: Steller sea lions, the less populous and smaller California sea lion, harbor seals, Northern elephant seals, sea otters, and extremely rare sightings of the usually southern-based Guadalupe fur seals.

In about 1989, Freitag said he joined up with the Marine Mammal Stranding program. As part of that organization, Freitag said he’s done “a lot of work on” sea lions and seals as a part of the MMS, but because sea otters are under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jurisdiction, he isn’t permitted to work with them, beyond helping to transport individuals to rescue centers.

He said that helping to transport baby sea otters can be a fun experience, as when he’s accompanying them at the airport, the airport staff is enchanted by the baby’s arrival.

“Of course, all the people behind the counters over there, they all rush down to look at this little tiny baby sea otter, and we’re feeding it with milk or something — they think it’s really cool,” Freitag said, chuckling.

He said that the sea otters are rarely seen in the Ketchikan area, but that is changing.

“They’re moving very rapidly into this area, they’re over on Prince of Wales island. We know they’re on the inside, they’re as far down the coast from Cape Chacon north all the way up almost all the way to Moira Sound,” Freitag said.

He next introduced the audience, which filled the library’s reading area, to the area’s whales.

He said there are northern right whales in Southeast Alaska, although they are rare. In contrast, he pointed out the Pacific white-sided dolphin, which he said usually stays farther offshore. However, several years ago, there was a pod with thousands of individuals in the Ketchikan area.

“One time we went out on the boat, in Behm canal, and as far as you could see, there were nothing but fins from the Pacific white-sided dolphins,” he said.

The Dall’s porpoise is a very common marine mammal in southern Southeast, Freitag said. They are the black-and-white porpoises that will often play in the bow wake of vessels. Harbor porpoise also are commonly seen in the area’s waters, Freitag said.

Freitag displayed a chart, illustrating the differences between dolphins and porpoises. Some of those differences included tooth shape, fin configuration, home range, life span, size and even sounds made by the two groups. The sounds made by porpoises are out of the human range of hearing, Freitag said. Unlike dolphins, porpoises also are found only in the Pacific ocean, he added.

As Freitag introduced a slide with illustrations of toothed whales, he said a fact that people often do not know, and that often is misrepresented in texts, is that orcas — or killer whales — are actually dolphins, not toothed whales.

He said that sperm whales live and fish off shore in Southeast Alaska, and use their impressive smarts to steal fish from boats fishing black cod. They seem to listen for the sounds of the boats pulling their gear, and home in on easy prey.

He said that while not many of the other toothed whales are common in the area, they do show up.

“You always can be fooled by what you see here,” he said.

He introduced the baleen whales next, calling the humpback whales the most common in the area. The species has had some ups and downs over the years. Freitag displayed a slide showing humpback numbers as being about 15,000 in the pre-whaling days, then dwindling to about 1,200 individuals in 1966, when whaling was outlawed. In 2018, the humpback whale population was estimated to be 22,000 individuals.

Freitag next showed a map that illustrated the patterns of humpback whale behavior. The whales migrate to the area around Hawaii to breed, where they do very little feeding. Freitag said there are an increasing number of humpbacks, however, that winter in Southeast Alaska. He said what is believed, is that they’re being seen more often simply because there are increasing numbers of humpbacks.

Bubble net feeding by humpback whales was the next topic.

“The whales, two or three of them, will get together and one of them will go down below, or two of them will go down below, and they blow bubbles,” he explained. He said that panics the prey, causing them to ball up. That’s when the whales scoop them up in quantity, then push the water out through their baleen plates before swallowing the creatures they netted.

Freitag said he often is asked if the humpbacks can eat larger fish as well.

“No, they can’t,” Freitag said he tells people. “Because their throats are about the size of a cantaloupe.”

He explained that the primary food of humpback whales are herring and euphausiids — or krill. Euphausiids are small, shrimp-like creatures.

He also said that some humpbacks have learned to home in on the release of immature salmon from hatcheries, so the hatchery staff has learned to dribble the fish out, rather than to release them in one big school that can be bubble netted.

He said that blue whales have also been spotted in Dixon Entrance, and that species has attracted researchers from British Columbia to the area.

Other baleen whales, such as fin whales, sei whales and gray whales, also inhabit southern Southeast Alaska’s waters. Gray whales tend to stay farther offshore, he said, and are identifiable by their very pale coloration.

Gray whales stay offshore as they migrate off the coast. Freitag said that one reason their pattern is different from other baleen whales is that they don’t feed on schooling fish.

“They go down, and they grab sand, and they filter the sand with all the worms and the clams and everything that’s in there,” Freitag said. “So, they’re migrating up the coast to go into the Bering Sea and places where the water is shallower and they can go down and grab sand and feed through their baleen plates.”

Freitag said he has only participated in one rescue response for a gray whale, and his team found the whale off of Guard island, heading toward Behm canal, dragging a buoy. When they researched the numbers on the buoy, after it had been cut off of the animal, they discovered the whale had been dragging it all the way from near Yakutat.

“It had pulled a large crab pot — I’m sure a commercial pot — all the way down, from up that way, down to here,” he said.

Another species that Freitag said inhabits area waters is the minke whale. He described it as a smaller whale, which he has spotted in George Inlet. He said they used to be often seen farther south, as well, near the Kah Shakes herring fisheries there. They haven’t been spotted often in the past couple of decades.

Freitag next talked about the Pacific right whales, which also can appear in southern Southeast Alaska. Their ability to stay afloat after being harpooned, with their prodigious blubber content, made them the “right” whale to hunt in the early days he said. Before the species became a target of the whaling industry, there were an approximated 20,000 Pacific right whales. Their current numbers are estimated at only 40 individuals.

Freitag shared some of the regulations regarding the collection of marine mammal parts, such as bones.

If the animal is a non-endangered species, Freitag said, the bones can be kept only from an animal that is bare of flesh when found, and as long as the collector applies for a permit from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration within 30 days. Those parts also cannot be sold.

The regulations for Alaska Natives are much more lenient, and the rules vary widely between species, according to charts of the regulations Freitag displayed for different marine mammal species.

The regulations also vary by region, Freitag said, because in some areas populations are thriving, while in others, they are endangered.

There also are regulations addressing how close vessels may come to marine mammals, and the speeds they are allowed to travel within certain distances of them.

Freitag then led the audience through some necropsies he’d participated in as part of the stranding program. One slide showed Freitag standing on the deeply grooved underside of a humpback whale’s mouth. That whale’s carcass had been found on Suemez island in 1994.

He said that often, when they find a carcass that has been lying for awhile, there is a challenge that must be dealt with carefully.

“The gases build up tremendous pressure,” he said.

There have been instances in which a person thrust a long flensing knife into the bloated carcass, and it has blown violently up, even causing injuries.

“What we did, with this animal, is we stood back and took a shotgun with a slug and we shot a hole just about right in the middle here, and it just vented like somebody broke the top off a SCUBA tank,” Freitag said, illustrating the effect with a whooshing noise.

“And, smell, oh man it was something else,” Freitag said. “We ran upwind and sat — it took 20 minutes to deflate.”

He also displayed a photo of the whale that more recently had been found dead on the bow of a cruise ship. He said a large group of volunteers helped with that necropsy. He added that he often is asked whether the collision with the ship is what killed the whale, but he said the investigation still is not conclusive, and the issue is still in litigation.

“I know the cruise ship hit it, but I don’t know if it was alive when the cruise ship hit it,” Freitag said he usually answers.

He said it definitely is true that a dead whale would be much easier than a live one for a ship to hit, as a live one is likely to move out of the way.

Freitag said another common issue people call him about is when they think they see sea lions under attack, or in distress. He said that what he always finds is a group of sea lions floating in the water, some with a flipper raised vertically. He explained that experts think that the behavior could either be a way for the sea lions to soak up the warmth of the sun, or possibly a mating behavior.

Freitag then launched into a story about a Stellers sea lion in very real danger that he helped to save, in partnership with now-retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Boyd Porter.

The sea lion was spotted off and on for about a month, near Pennock island, with a steel-belted car tire firmly stuck on its neck.

When Freitag and Porter arrived, the animal was lying on a small rocky outcropping, and it appeared quite thin.

Freitag said Porter decided that the best way to quiet the animal for the removal of the tire was to administer drugs through blow darts, to avoid a sudden startle. If the animal jumped into the water full of tranquilizer, it could have drowned.

Porter successfully darted the animal, and it relaxed. They waited 20 minutes, on the beach across from the rock, and the animal appeared to be asleep.

“Oh, OK, I’ll go in there and try to pull that tire off,” Freitag said he remembered Porter saying.

They motored back to the sea lion, to prepare to cut the tire off, and Porter approached the animal.

“He grabs the tire, and he pulls on it, and the thing roared up,” Freitag said, grinning. “Scared him — I’ve never seen a biologist fly, but he actually flew into the boat.”

The animal had to be darted again, and in the next attempt, the pair tested the sea lion’s alertness by pulling on the tire with a boat hook. When the animal was obviously completely unconscious, Porter and Freitag used a hacksaw to cut the tire off of the sea lion’s neck, where it was embedded almost two inches into the animal’s flesh.

Freitag then talked about the behaviors of orcas, and how their populations have been affected in different regions.

The southern resident orcas — mostly in the waters south of Vancouver Island in British Columbia —  have a population that has plummeted to fewer than 100 individuals, Freitag said. That has spurred a theory that the cause is the decline in chinook salmon, with the assertion that the resident orcas eat chinook almost exclusively. That belief has then led to a push to limit the chinook fishery.

Freitag said his belief is that all orcas thrive on a variety of food sources, and the cause of the southern orca population is more complex than the chinook problem.

“We know that they don’t only eat salmon,” Freitag said of the orcas.

He said that he and other scientists had a chance to learn quite a lot from a necropsy on an orca in Carroll Inlet several years ago.

Through the extensive records kept by the Vancouver Aquarium of the color and notch patterns on the bodies and fins of whales, Freitag’s team was able to identify the orca as a female, “Yakat,” who had been born in 1958.

Scientists had been tracking Yakat her entire life, and her family history and genealogy was well known, Freitag said.

“She’s the matriarch leader,” of her entire clan, Freitag said, explaining that orcas follow a matriarchal structure of leadership.

One mystery of Yakat’s pod’s behavior was solved by the discovery of her body. Her pod’s home territory is Johnstone Strait, northeast of Vancouver Island, and researchers had not been able to discover where the pod lived during the winter months.

When Yakat’s body was discovered in the month of January, in Carroll Inlet, the mystery was solved.

Freitag said they’ve confirmed that the pod continues to spend winters in the George Inlet area.

When the team found the carcass, they discovered that the head was missing. They later found out that the man who’d originally found the orca had removed the animal’s head in an effort to remove and save its teeth.

The man was contacted later, and forced to give up the teeth, which Freitag said still lie in a bucket at the NOAA office.

When the orca’s stomach contents were analyzed, two fish otoliths, several octopus or squid beaks were found, in addition to some liquid that was not analyzed.

One of the things about the study of marine animals that people must remember, Freitag emphasized, is that we see a very, very small percentage of the animals’ actual behavior. That should be considered before sweeping decisions are made about the control of fisheries and other such issues.

Freitag then opened the session to questions.

Mimi Kotlarov asked, “Do you have any thoughts on why the decline in the southern groups?”

Freitag said, “I think there’s some pollution issues that they’ve identified already in these animals. There’s all kinds of polycarbons and things that they’re dealing with down there. All you have to do is interfere with the birth rate and the success of birthing and all that, and you’re going to see a decline.”

Ken Kemmerer asked about the theory that resident and transient orcas have different diets.

“Residents supposedly only feed on fish — primarily king salmon — transients feed only on marine mammals,” Freitag said.

But, he emphasized the adaptive, intelligent nature of orcas, and said he believes that they will take advantage of any food source they find.

Judith McQuerry asked if Freitag’s team had ever found the head of the orca “Yakat.”

Freitag said that when the team was working on taking samples for the necropsy, a researcher from the Seward aquarium found the head in the woods above the orca’s body. Freitag said he was below with a crew working on taking samples.

“All of a sudden, he’s up there wrastling this head, because we wanted to get brain tissue, and it got loose on him,” Freitag said, laughing. “And it comes rolling down the hill, and this big killer whale head comes down, and we jumped out of the way, it went right into the water and straight to the bottom.”

He said he did return to the site later, and searched for the head on the ocean bottom with his Remote Operated Vehicle, but to no avail.

“It’s pretty unusual to see a big, giant head of a whale coming down after you,” Freitag said, to the laughter of the audience.