How do I love whales? Let me count the ways

GALVESTON - Insomniacs count sheep, bankers count money, umpires count balls and strikes. Bernd Wursig counts whales.

The Texas A&M University at Galveston marine researcher is on a mission that, in ecological terms, counts plenty. No one knows exactly how many of the 50-ton, 50-foot long Bowhead whales are out there. One thing we do know, says Wursig, an expert on the subject, is that there aren't as many as there used to be.

"The Bowhead whale was hunted intensely by whalers worldwide in the 19th century and by Russian whalers in this century," Wursig explains.

"In Alaska, the native Americans there respect and revere the Bowhead whale, as they have done for centuries. In some areas of the world, there are groups of several thousand or so Bowhead whales, but in the Okhotsk Sea of far east Russia, there may be only 100 to 200 left. Our job is to determine the best possible estimate of Bowhead whales in the region."

Funding the project is the North Slope Borough, which is the largest county in Alaska and also the largest in the United States. The Inuits, the Native Americans of the Alaskan North Slope, are helping to coordinate the count, most of which will occur in the Shantar Island region in the Sea of Okhotsk.

So how do you count whales?

One way, Wursig says, is by photo identification. By taking photographs of Bowhead whales in the area and building up a catalog of pictures, a reliable estimate can by made. "If we keep re-capturing the same whales in our photographs, we can make statistically based estimates of how many are out there," he explains.

Another way is by genetic testing. By taking genetic samples of Bowheads in the area, Wursig and his team can determine how much in-breeding of the whales has occurred and get a more accurate reading than by the photographic method, "although we'll use both to get the best possible estimate we can," he adds.

Helping him in the project is Steve MacLean, a graduate student at Tex

Contact: Bernd Wursig
Texas A&M University

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