By Naomi Klouda
People aboard the Rainbow Connection were granted a delightful sight last week when the humpback whales Bullet and Tophat appeared in Kachemak Bay for the first time since 2006-07.
Rainbow Tours, which has a catalog of 500 humpback whales, was able to spot the individuals by the identifying scars on their flukes.
“It was exciting to see two of the six of the whales coming into the bay were returning,” though late May can be an early show for the whales. said Ginger Moore, of Rainbow Tours.
The whales’ genders can’t be discerned from a boat, but one had a calf alongside, so it might be assumed that either Bullet or Tophat is female.
The crew of the Rainbow Connection and Rainbow Tours, owned by Jack and Fran Montgomery, began keeping track and identifying humpbacks about 16 years ago. Each time a whale is spotted and photographed, a record is made of the flukes’ characteristics.
“Our whales are divided into four categories — W, X, Y, and Z — based on the distribution of pigment on the ventral side of their flukes,” Moore said.
On the website, kbaywhales.com, it explains further that orca or other predator tooth rakes and barnacle scars can accumulate over time, basic pigmentation is individual and forever.
After each letter designation, there is an ID number and “deck name.”
Tophat, for example, is known as W38. This whale was recorded in sightings in July 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006. The “W” whales’ flukes are mostly black, with a small smattering of white. Some of these white markings are the scars left behind by hitchhiking barnacles, tooth rakes from predators, such as sharks and orca whales, and, in males, wounds resulting from battles for paternal rights.
As for Bullet, that’s a whale whose fluke is of another color. This humpback whale carries a Y designation, and is known as Y1.
The “Y”” whales make up the majority of the catalog.
“They display an approximate 50-50 ratio of white and black on their flukes. These white patterns are separate; there are two distinct markings on each fluke,” the website explains.
Y1 was last seen in July 2007.
In 2000, the Rainbow was making regular trips to Lower Cook Inlet and Kennedy
Entrance on its whale-watching tour.
“A few we see every single year. But we don’t whale watch any more that far out around the point. They have to come into the inner bay,” Moore said. “In the past the whales usually arrived in the fall so it seems unusual this time of year to see them. We’re excited that the whales are in the bay this time of year.”
The Rainbow crew and visitors saw six humpback whales this week traveling to and from Seldovia.
“One of the whales we are watching now was first to arrive and it’s still here. It arrived a few weeks ago,” Moore said. “The first sighting was around Memorial Day weekend.”
Many people contribute to the whale cataloging study, Moore said. Generally, the entire crew of Rainbow Connection participates in recording the whales sighted, and the project receives guidance from local scientists. Orca whale specialist Craig Matkin, founding member and director of the North Gulf Oceanic Society, assisted in supporting the website. In return, Rainbow Tours gives Matkin orca sighting information.
“Rainbow Tours started this because it was a passion of ours and we enjoyed doing it so much,” Moore said.
The goal was always to correlate with other researchers out of Hawaii, where it is believed these humpbacks spend the winter. So far, no Hawaiian researcher has agreed to share whale information, likely because of the difficulty of handing over proprietary data.
“We wanted to understand the migrational pattern of the whales and find out where they go every winter. At this point, we don’t know. We assume most go to Hawaii. We’d like to find out where they go, but there’s no way of getting hold of the data,” Moore said.
“A lot of our whales are mostly correlated to Prince William Sound,” Moore said. She consults most with Olga von Ziegesar and Eye of the Whale. That is a similar effort in a long-term humpback whale project in Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords. It has focused on photo identification to document as many whales as possible for inclusion in the catalogue of humpback whales in Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords.
Ginger Moore would like to hear from others who sight the humpbacks. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.