Opinions

OPINION: An obituary for Spot, a humpback whale

Spot, a large female humpback whale, died in February in Southeast Alaska. She was observed lying on the rocky shore of Killisnoo Island by the crew aboard the Alaska Marine Highway system and reported to the Alaska Region’s stranding network. I found out a few days later, and I could not stop thinking about her. I felt I had lost a good friend, although it was a one-way relationship.

I got to know Spot when I started working for Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in 1987. I often came upon her in lower Glacier Bay, often in Berg Bay. She had a calf that summer and was an attentive mother, watchful but not overly so, and kept her distance from other whales. I was pregnant at the time, and as it turned out, so was she! She showed up the next summer with another calf, and I showed up with my 6-month-old son, Finn. I could not imagine having been pregnant in two consecutive years, successfully carrying the pregnancies to term, weaning the 1987 calf and then doing it all over again. I was amazed at what these whales could do. I had a hard enough time just finding a babysitter. I also was envious of the saltwater buoyancy whales experience.

Spot was at least 46 years old when she died in 2022. She was first observed and named by the Jurasz family in 1977. Individual humpback whales are recognized by the unique coloration on the underside of their flukes. With one white spot on her dark flukes, she was nicknamed Spot. She is also known as SEAK 235, her catalog number. She continued to be sighted in the waters of Glacier Bay by National Park Service biologists Scott Baker, me, Chris Gabriele and Janet Neilson, in subsequent years. She would show up like clockwork each spring, seldom associating with other whales. First sighted with a calf in 1984, she raised 12 calves over 37 years. The Northeast Pacific Marine Heatwave during 2014-16 took a toll on the prey for humpbacks and many regulars, like Spot, stopped returning to feed in the waters of Glacier Bay. Neilson was thrilled to see Spot again in the spring of 2020 with a new calf in tow, though they didn’t stick around.

Spot’s legacy lives on through her offspring. Janet Neilson said, “One of Spot’s calves, SEAK 1079 (born in 1993), came back to Glacier Bay year after year, just like her mother. SEAK 1079 has had four calves and three of them are whales that we regularly see in Glacier Bay to this day. Two are always found near Flapjack Island and the surrounding reefs. I have joked that they both have underwater leashes tied to Flapjack. It wasn’t until now that I realized they are half-siblings. I imagine Spot must have shown her daughter this is a prime feeding location, and she then transferred that knowledge to her calves.”

By returning to Glacier Bay each year, Spot gave us the opportunity to learn from her. She has given us information on annual calving and associations with other whales. She has provided us with details on her preferred prey, social life, and faithfulness to a feeding area. Even her abandonment of her longtime feeding area during a time of ecological change is informative. Today, what we know about humpback whales comes from long-term monitoring of individual whales like Spot. It is only through the forward thinking of the Park Service, pioneered by the Juraszs, and other independent researchers, that we have this information.

I am honored to have known Spot, and I consider her a friend.

Jan Straley is a biology faculty and science educator at the University of Alaska’s Sitka campus. She has studied cetaceans in Alaska for more than 40 years. In 1985, the National Park Service funded the humpback whale monitoring program. Jan was the humpback whale biologist at Glacier Bay National Park from 1987 to 1990. Chris Gabriele became the biologist in 1991 and Janet Neilson joined the program in 1997. They both contributed to this obituary. For more information on Alaska humpback whales, you can visit http://www.alaskahumpbacks.org.

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