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Far East Russia Orca Project expedition 2010

The 2010 field season was unlike all previous seasons.

First, we worked in Avacha Gulf and the Commander Islands as two different teams for the whole season. Second, we bought a bigger fibreglass 25 foot boat. It was costly for the project, but now we are much less weather-dependent for our work in the Commander Islands.

The expedition to Bering Island left from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on 12 June. This year, the project included various mostly long-time members: O. Filatova, I. Fedutin, E. Lazareva, I. Shevchenko, M. Shevchenko, A. Goskov, A. Shabalina, as well as two new ones two student-oceanographers from Rostov-on-Don Alexey Chubar and Alexey Yakunin.

A couple of weeks after the start of the expedition, we found in the waters of Bering Island incredibly large concentrations of humpback whales. In some large foraging aggregations, we had more than a hundred whales. Being in such a concentrated group, it was impossible to look around and find a part of the water without humpback whale spouts, tail splashes or breaching. It seemed that the water was boiling from their activity. After some were diving deep, others appeared on the surface. The humpback whales were accompanied by huge flocks of short-tailed shearwaters splashing around the feeding whales and trying to grab more crustaceans at shallow depth or as they were flung into the air in the frenzy. Puffins gazed out over the surface to glimpse the whales and hastened to the spot where they assumed the whales would appear on the surface. It was an avian uproar, thousands of wings flapping, splashing and punctuated by the "locomotive whistles" of breathing whales and all of it merged together into a special indescribable noise. These are the same shearwaters that make flights over the entire globe. They nest and raise offspring when they are in the Southern Hemisphere, and spend the summer with us, gorging on the local food delicacies.

Many times, as the humpbacks fed together, we saw the so-called "bubble net" feeding a special hunting technique that facilitates extraction of small schooling fish and perhaps krill. In this behaviour, the humpbacks air bubbles emerge from its blowhole surrounding a shoal of fish and forcing them into a circle. As the bubbles rise to the surface, the air creates an intimidating barrier to the fish. They stay concentrated in the centre in a tight ball, and are subsequently swallowed by a whale coming up through the water column. We watched whales feeding in this manner only one at a time, although in other areas, such as off the coast of Alaska, humpbacks organize collective hunting with a "bubble net", and there is a separation and change of roles, beaters, and consumers. During the creation of a whale "bubble network", we also heard at close range and recorded the characteristic sounds, reminiscent of low-frequency grunting or belching. Perhaps these sounds are intended to create further shocking impact to the prey. These sounds were recorded by us in previous seasons, but at a greater distance. Now we can uniquely associate them with food gathering and the bubble-net activity of humpback whales.

By September, the humpback whales finally had enough food and began to devote more time to their second favourite pastime acrobatic jumps. Some days there was virtually no wind, and it so happened that at this time the whales kept close to the shore, almost on the beach. At night they would not let us sleep because of the deafening applause of the water, the splashing of fins, the moans, grunts, whistles and other loud sounds resounding far above the calm surface of the sea and heard even in the cabin. During these days we fully satisfied our desire to shoot photos and video of humpback whale jumps.

Throughout the summer and early autumn the number of humpbacks in the area was unusually high, but in late September, they were suddenly gone. With them gone, the shearwaters left, too. Probably, this year the Commanders had a good combination of hydrological and biotic factors, which provided a high concentration of prey items in a limited area which was perfect for hungry whales. According to preliminary results from this season, our catalogue has added up to 524 new humpback whales, though in all previous years and all over the Russian Far East, we had only 226 humpbacks previously in the directory. There were about 40 resightings of animals from previous years as well as for the first time two meetings of humpback whales from Karaginskiy Gulf. This is an important result, indicating the existence of exchange between feeding regions.

Each season is different and funny accidents happen. In Golodnaya Bay in the south we picked up from the water a dead medvedka (this is a local name for sea otter pups in the first months of life. The mother sea otter, diving for food, usually leaves the young floating on the surface.) A fluffy corpse the size of a large cat swayed on the waves with outstretched legs, his head hanging down hopelessly under water. We were interested in this, as sea otter skulls are needed for the research department of the reserve. Raising the tail of the animal's lifeless body, we examined it from all sides and put it on the deck. The corpse looked quite fresh. Imagine our surprise when, some time later, the pup suddenly reached out, opened her eyes, and then, realizing her position, began to rush around in the boat, screaming and biting. Of course, we immediately pushed the perturbed animal overboard, repenting of our errors and laughing.

In summer, the Commanders have a high concentration of marine mammals so we often witness various inter-species interactions. For example, we regularly observed the joint movement of Dalls porpoises and killer whales with groups of humpbacks. Porpoises will move quickly around a big whale, like swimming around a moving rock apparently just for the pleasure. What whales obtain in this regard is not clear, since there were no responses from them. Also, often we see young sea lions, swimming with a group of fish-eating killer whales. When the whale dives, the seals, bewildered, look around at the sides, and then rejoin the group. We joke that it is a special home for seals with the whales. This season, we watched a funny interaction between a young fur seal with a baby humpback. While the mother was engaged in the endless and tedious process of obtaining food, her offspring found something to do that was most interesting to play with a seal. Both participants of this game displayed all the signs of joy. The baby whale thrashed the water with its fins, exhibiting a spout, and allowing the seal to ride on its belly. The seal kept moving at the same time, and curled around his whale-partner. It is a pity that this episode failed to be recorded by our video. As soon as we approached closer with the camera, the game ended.



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