Using aerial photography to investigate evidence of feeding by bowhead whales



Aerial photographs were analyzed to investigate the feeding habits of the Bering-Chukchi-Beaufort (BCB) population of bowhead whales (Balaena mysticetus), particularly epibenthic feeding near Barrow, Alaska. Evidence of epibenthic feeding was based on mud visible on the dorsal surface of whales, resulting from feeding near the seafloor. Other cues used to assess feeding were an open mouth or the presence of feces in photographs. Over 3,600 photographs were analyzed including photos from surveys in spring and late summer and in both the western and eastern Beaufort Sea. Of all the photographs analyzed, 64% were scored as definitively muddy. In spring, ratios ranged from a low of 27% in 2003 to a high of 76% in 2004. When all May sample sets off Barrow were combined (1985, 1986, 2003, 2004), there was a significant difference (t-test, P < 0.004) between the proportion of muddy juveniles to the proportion of muddy adults, with muddy adults being more common. The Barrow area was a commonly used feeding ground during migrations in both the spring (61% of the sample were feeding; 55% epibenthically) and autumn (99% of the sample; 97% epibenthically). Bowheads both migrate and feed through areas where petroleum extraction is underway and anticipated; hence, exposure to oil after a spill is of considerable concern to Native communities and management agencies.