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Scientists eavesdrop on whales

RECORDING: Calls are efforts at contact, researcher tells conference.

By Doug O'Harra
Anchorage Daily News

16th January 2003

Biologists have been collecting the strange, scratchy calls of North Pacific right whales from the Bering Sea, eavesdropping on life among the rarest large cetaceans on the planet.

The calls cluster at night and sound like the stiff, one-second cries made by right whales in the North Atlantic and southern oceans, said Lisa Munger, a researcher at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California.

"They call for a little while, and then they're quiet for a long time," she said. "We think these calls are really contact calls -- individuals trying to find each other."

Munger played a recording of a Bering Sea right whale before about 60 people at the Marine Science in the Northeast Pacific conference in Anchorage at the Hotel Captain Cook.

She was among 160 scientists giving presentations on sea lions, climate change, fish biology, oceanography and the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

The recordings revealed three kinds of calls, she said. But the whales were often silent during the day, complicating efforts by biologists to see what they're doing when they make sounds.

During one three-day period in early October, a recording device registered 236 calls -- 40 calls between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m., and 150 between 8 p.m. and midnight, according to a report by Munger and her co-investigators.

The recordings, made by four buoys anchored in deep water outside the mouth of Bristol Bay in 2000, also showed that the whales stayed through early November and then left for unknown seas. The devices stopped working in May.

North Pacific right whales were once thought to be extinct in Alaska waters, but small groups have been seen in the same area of the eastern Bering Sea over the past seven summers.

The new findings suggest that scientists could use relatively inexpensive listening buoys to learn more about where the critically endangered animals migrate, said Sue Moore, a leading whale biologist and director of the federal Marine Mammal Lab in Seattle.

"It would be really good to spread these things out and see where they are in the ocean," Munger said Wednesday.

The study has been difficult. Two of the four buoys were lost for months until a Nelson Lagoon resident found one on an Alaska Peninsula beach and a fishing boat spied the other floating near Russian waters.