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Far East Russia Orca Project expedition 2011

The 2011 field season focussed on two regions of the Russian Far East: Avacha Gulf, on Kamchatka, and the Commander Islands.

Work on Bering Island in the Commanders began in May and continued until the end of September. The expedition including our long-standing members O. Filatova, I. Fedutin, E. Lazareva, A. Shabalina, A. Volkov joined by a new student from the University of Saratov, Ermishkina Tanya, a volunteer from the Prioksky-Terrasny Reserve, the ornithologist Ilya Murashev, and Moscow State University researcher Dr. Andrey Prudkovskii, who studied the food prey of humpback whales.

The first phase of the expedition on the island included a small team of participants. In May, O. Filatova and I. Fedutin arranged the field camp in Poludennaya bay and began working on the boat together. Initially, the whales were very few. Humpbacks had not yet come to the wintering areas, and killer whales due in June, usually are found in these waters less in May and late summer. Still, it was possible to work very well with several groups of Bairds beaked whales.

The little-studied Bairds beaked whales are regularly seen in the waters of the Commanders, but no one in the world had studied them previously with photo-identification, since they are generally quite rare. In addition, Bairds beaked whales usually prefer areas with greater depths where they can get their favorite food deep-sea squid. The waters off western Bering Island are convenient for working with Bairds beaked whales, because the shelf slope lies in close proximity to the coast. We were able to add more than 70 animals to the catalogue, and the resulting data has made it possible to draw interesting conclusions.

With Bairds beaked whales visiting the Commanders regularly, we have now recorded a lot of repeated encounters within one season and between seasons. For the first time we have been able to establish the existence of long-term social associations between these whales that is, the same individuals saying together for a long time. Some of these associates, we have noted, happen even between years. At the same time, such permanent alliances can be connected with other similar or separate individuals, who form a large component of the group. This is an important observation that confirms the hypothesis that the social structure of Bairds beaked whales resembles the so-called fission-fusion society, described, for example, in bottlenose dolphins.

In one case we observed two stable alliances within one large group, numbering up to 15 individuals. The animals remained for a long time near the surface, showed a lot of social activity, and vocalized. From the whistles that we recorded then we can surmise that they are clearly of a communicative nature.

Most Bairds beaked whales were encountered in May and June. Probably this is the time of their spring migration. Do Bairds beaked whales continue to stay in the waters of the Commander and the rest of the year stay farther from the shore, or do they migrate to other places as yet unknown? So far, no matches have been registered between the various regions of the Far East.

At the end of June, we celebrated the first mass arrival of humpback whales. During the summer, their numbers in the area were stable, although not as high as in the anomalous conditions last year. It was only in September that we again met large aggregations of actively feeding humpbacks. Compared to the summer and autumn of 2010, the whales were generally more scattered. There were also fewer aggregations of humpbacks accompanied by short-tailed shearwater flocks; they appeared only in August.

To establish the prey of humpback whales, we have been doing regular plankton surveys. From the near-surface samples collected in the vicinity of feeding humpbacks, we found substantial amounts of euphausiid crustaceans, krill and other zooplankton. Most of the samples were recorded in the evening. We often observed that feeding activity markedly increased at dusk. This is the logical explanation: krill make daily vertical migrations, and the maximum concentration of copepods in the surface layer is formed in the evening and night hours, so it is more profitable for the whales to feed it at night.

We repeatedly witnessed the spectacular surface feeding of humpback whales. At the same time, humpbacks are often combined in pairs and perform synchronized maneuvers on the surface, turning to the side and grabbing huge portions of marine crustaceans with wide-open mouths. Their throats swell up, straightening out the folds of skin, exposing the funny pink streaks. At such moments we cannot always make out what part of the body can be seen above the surface, as the shape of the throat changes so much when it is bulging with water.

A video of surface feeding humpback whales can be seen here.

We made an analysis of stable isotopes within humpback skin samples that showed significant differences between different feeding areas. Possible food items in Karaginsky Gulf (from our previous research) were at higher trophic levels than those of the Commander whales. These data fully confirm our observations: in Karaginsky Gulf we have repeatedly recorded humpback whales feeding on small schooling fish - sand lance (see Field Report for 2009), and on the Commander there is multiple evidence of these whales feeding on krill.

From the end of June, we met fish-eating killer whale groups regularly. One particular new group visited us several times this year. Unlike most of the Commander orca groups that treat our boat with suspicion and try to stay away from us, this group did not pay any attention to us and quietly allowed us to approach quite closely. Of interest, the dialect of this group was very similar to the dialect of Marik, with whom we have twice worked in 2009 in the waters of Karaginsky Island. It is likely that this group also had a guest from the east coast of Kamchatka all of them were so much more comfortable with the noise of the engine than the "wild" Commander islands orcas.

Last year's white whales the female Mama Tanya and the male Iceberg did not honour us with their presence, but the white calf Lemon came, whom we first met in 2008. For three years Lemon has grown from a calf now to became a juvenile. His group is still not very tolerant of our presence, but by numerous stealthy maneuvers we several times were able to get close to him, to get the necessary photos for research.

Marine-mammal-eating killer whales, the transient ecotype, visited us, too. On the first day in May right at the entrance to the bay, we met a group of three marine-mammal-eating killer whales a male, female and adolescent. They were not too accessible so we took photos only with great difficulty. In June, we met a group already known to us from the previous year, and in July and August, our old friend, a single transient male, passed our bay several times.

In general, unlike last year, most of the whales this year were already encountered in our catalogue. It seems that we have already catalogued a substantial part of the orcas in the waters of the Commander Islands. They came to us again and again, along with some groups from Avacha Bay. And in Avacha Gulf this year we met a group which we first photographed in the Commander in 2009. It seems that the Commander and Avacha orcas regularly, though still somewhat rarely, visit each other's areas.

This season we have been the object of attention from several film crews. The first came to us with the operators of the TV channel Russia Today. It was in early June, and they had not much time to see whales. But they were lucky. The day offered perfect weather for the area, and it was surprisingly easy to find a group of Bairds beaked whales. The film operator even managed to capture a valuable sequence, and he also used a sequence we gave him from our video archives. Satisfied, they left the same day for Nikolskoye. Their film about the Commander Islands is available online.

The next crew, which consisted of six people, firmly established themselves in our field camp for as long as two weeks. Among them were such well-known public personalities like Ivan Zatevakhin and Eugene Koblik. This project was organized under the name of "Extreme Biology". No matter how we tried to convince them that our biology is not extreme, and that it is in fact rather normal, still, with real journalistic persistence, they looked for "hot" moments in our work. When we went with them into the sea, the boat was like a jam-packed trolley bus at rush hour: Everywhere people were stuck and trying in vain to sleep so as not to interfere with each other. The whales behaved well; our friendly humpback female named Finger even waved her fins and breached a bit. So in general, everyone seemed to be happy, except for Ivan, who wanted more killer whales. Killer whales were only a few, and they missed a very good group by leaving for the rookery to film seals on one of the days. The weather was not very good, but in the end there was a powerful cyclone, and their beach tents were hopelessly leaking and theexpensive equipment get slightly wet. Two weeks passed in turmoil and rush jobs. Once the group departed for Petropavlovsk, the weather improved, there were lots of killer whales, and a couple of days we met the family of the young white whale Lemon. There are two short promo clips from Ivan Zatevakhin available here:

The third film crew consisted of two young men who visited us in September. They arrived at the Commanders to work casually and to shoot film. What is this movie and what it should be they do not seem to really understand. We refused to cooperate with this filming, being tired from two summer film crews.

In addition to people on an expedition to Bering Island, there was a new party a cat named Yamaha, so named because of its diligent purring. At first we often confused the cats sound with the noise of motorboats in the bay setting off. It came to our camp quite spontaneously: During one of our visits to the local village Nikolskoye a barge sailor begged us to take an orphan kitten, abandoned near the pier by Aleuts, and we could not refuse. Also, at that time, pestering us was a large rat who lived in our house as a sovereign mistress of our living space. With the arrival of Yamaha the Cat, the rat wisely left for an unknown destination. However at first the cat brought no less trouble than an intrusive rodent. But over time it adapted to life in the field and sometimes brought a lot of fun and diversified our routine. She regularly escorted us into the sea, coming to the beach, and then gleefully greeted us in the evening. Sometimes she followed someone for mushrooms in the tundra or on the point of observation. It was very amusing to see her relations with the foxes. At first we were worried for her safety, yet a fox is little more than a cat, and on occasion, jad ferocious encounters with much larger weakened otters or sea lion pups. But after the first encounter of Yamaha with a polar fox we were no longer worried the cat swelled up, hissed and drove the frightened fox to the hill, from where he issued a long shrill barking to the neighborhood. Gradually, foxes become used to her, no longer fell into hysterics again, and began secretly attending the camp, but the cat continued to jealously guard the house from them. During the season, Yamaha got fat, and grew and evolved from a miserable starving animal to a large glossy beast. For the winter we left her back in Nikolskoye in safe hands and hope to get her again in the spring.

In August and September, most of the participants went home, and the end of the season in Bering Island and the close of the expedition was managed by our small staff.

In 2011, in Avacha Gulf, Kamchatka, we worked with two boats. Acoustic measurements were carried out with the old "Zodiac" and the killer whales photographed with a new five-meter boat "Poseidon." Accordingly, the team grew, and the expedition expanded to Zeleny Cape. This year, besides the permanent members M. Nagaylik, T. Ivkovich, M. Guzeyev and E. Borisova, new members worked with us: St. Petersburg State University graduates Andrew Gilev and Karina Karenina, as well as staff of the National Park "Gomolshanskie Forest" (Ukraine) - Anton Biatov. As usual, most of the killer whales we encountered turned out to be our old friends, although, there was sometimes a new family member. This season we started paying more attention to the hunting behavior of killer whales. Adapting the method of Canadian researchers, we started the regular collection of scales and skin, from the sea surface where the whales caught salmon. Several times orcas pounced on salmon under our boat, and through the water could be seen as an animal chasing fish. We also managed to photograph some whales with salmon in their mouths.

One day we saw whales right under the Zeleny Cape. Gathering for a few minutes, we moved away from the shore and found two marine-mammal-eating killer whales at the outlet of the bay. It is possible that they left after a successful hunt of sea otters and spotted seals. After they were a few kilometers out to sea, the killer whales joined the rest of their family: a female with a calf, and another animal. Later, examining the photos, we determined that we had already met this family in Avacha Gulf in the summer of 2005.

This season we have several times met fin whales. And once we found a sperm whale, which was feeding 15 kilometers from the coast near the shelf slope.

In the camp our conventional neighbors were voles and foxes which hunt voles. One fox was an old acquaintance whom we have met every season. But apart from him there was one young fox of interest. He was not just walking and hunting in the area of the camp, but also regularly watched us. In the mornings, he often came to the beach and watched as we were going to sea. It was a very curious fox and tried to eat various things from pegs, to box lunches, and even the case with photo equipment.

As it turned out, in the camp, besides the voles, there was a family of weasels. And once at sea, we saw a bear, who, frightened by our boat, sped along the shore near the camp.

In July, an expedition of Kamchatka club kayakers came to our camp. We were interested to learn about their travels and, in turn, told the tourists about our work with the killer whales of Avacha Gulf.



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