Whale-Counting Expedition Sets Sail for Farallon Islands | NBC Bay Area

Whale-Counting Expedition Sets Sail for Farallon Islands

The challenge of counting whales is no easy endeavor. But for those who do, the science is more like an art, set against the vast backdrop of the Pacific Ocean.

The challenge of counting whales is no easy endeavor. But for those who do, the "science" is more like an art set against the vast backdrop of the Pacific Ocean. Joe Rosato Jr. reports. (Published Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014)

The research boat glided through the relatively smooth waters of the Golden Gate Strait, past the churning waters known to fishermen as the “potato patch,” and off toward the Farallon Islands. A slew of researchers fashioned long, lanky nets to a pulley and tested long cylindrical sensors to dip into the Pacific, measuring temperature and elements.

The nets would haul in samples of krill, the tiny, preferred prey of whales and sea birds.

“We use acoustic methods to estimate krill abundance,” said Jaime Jahncke, a scientist from Point Blue Conservation.

A dozen researchers from NOAA, Point Blue and the Cordell-Bank National Marine Sanctuary scurried around the boat, taking up posts on the upper deck armed with binoculars. The trip marked the group’s 40th similar expedition in 10 years, taking samples and attempting to count birds and mammals along strips of ocean in the Gulf of Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

A team of researchers scans the ocean for signs of life.
Photo credit: Joe Rosato Jr.

“Our primary focus is abundance of distribution of birds and mammals,” NOAA researcher Jan Roletto said. “We also look at vessels.”

The team released long nets deep into the Pacific, hauling them back in with a sampling of gooey plankton and krill. The samples were labeled and bottled up for later inspection.

Meanwhile on the upper deck, a dozen observers with binoculars scanned the horizon looking for signs of life. The sighting of a Western Gull was noted on a laptop computer, then an albatross, then a sea lion.

“We provide a lot of information to the management of the sanctuaries,” Jahncke said.

A pair of killer whale swim beneath the research boat during a recent expedition.
Photo credit: Joe Rosato Jr.

Eventually a humpback whale breached in the distance and the boat veered over to take a closer look. Photographs of the leviathan would later reveal the same whale had been recorded 30 times since 1987.

The star attraction on the cruise, however, was the pair of killer whales that swam under the boat before disappearing into the sea.

“The number of whales we have seen the last three years,” Jahncke said, “is several times greater than the number of whales we saw when we started.”

The group’s research has helped sanctuary managers develop policies and regulations aimed at protecting the sanctuary’s aquatic life. In June, the Coast Guard used the research to reroute shipping lanes off the Bay Area coast to avoid migrating whale routes. Jahncke has also helped develop the Whale Alert app which allows the public to record whale sightings.

“We’re building a network of citizen scientists,” Jahncke said, “that can help us collect information of where the whales are.”

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