Story last updated at 3:20 p.m. Thursday, December 12, 2002

Killer whales make bay appearance
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

photo: news

  Photo by Sepp Jannotta, Homer News
A killer whale cruises past the end of the Homer Spit on Tuesday. It was one of three orcas that made a circuit of Mud Bay, where they were apparently hunting for seals, before heading toward Cook Inlet.  
It was before midday on Tuesday and Cy St-Amand and Renn Tolman had been discussing the art of skiff building at Tolman's Kachemak Drive shop. St-Amand glanced at the harbor seals hauled out on a prominent rock just off shore at Miller's Landing and noticed something out of the ordinary.

While the seals by themselves are hardly an unusual sight -- they are often seen snoozing on the rock in shallow Mud Bay -- the presence of several big black dorsal fins circling the rock was. A pod of killer whales had dropped by for dinner.

The animals were transient killer whales, a genetically unique variety that mainly feed on marine mammals. They are somewhat larger than their fish-eating orca relatives, known as resident killer whales, and along the Southcentral Alaska coast they are far more rare, biologists say.

These prolific hunters often have a range of up to 1,500 miles and have been seen chasing prey up to 500 miles off the coast.

Luckily for the harbor seals in Mud Bay, the tide was going out and they were able to remain warily perched on their haulout.

As for St-Amand, the sight of orcas in the inner reaches of Kachemak Bay set him into motion.

He immediately called his friend Craig Matkin and told him he'd spotted the animals rumored to be in Kachemak Bay recently. He then began to follow the orcas' progress as they abandoned their prey and headed toward the base of the Homer Spit.

The presence of wildlife, whether it be fleeting or chronic, is often a defining moment in the daily lives of Alaskans: in the arctic, the appearance of migrating caribou will get Gwich'in hunters into gear; in urban Juneau, a garbage-loving black bear can prompt the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to pull out the dart guns; and the sudden apparition of a moose in or along a dark winter roadway has sent many a motorist into the ditch, or worse.

And so it was that the presence of a small pod of killer whales in Kachemak Bay on Tuesday stirred up a flurry of fascination in Homer.

The phone in a newsroom rang with a report of the sighting.

Someone dropped by the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve to inquire after the whales. A woman walking her dog along the beach at Miller's Landing wore a large grin as she pointed to where the orcas had headed a few minutes earlier.

Tolman said that seeing the orcas from his shop was truly a treat as he'd never seen killer whales so close to shore in Mud Bay -- he estimated the water around the seals' rock at no more than 10 feet deep.

Matkin, a independent marine mammal researcher who is studying the killer whales of the north Gulf of Alaska, headed immediately out to the harbor to seek out a boat he could use to chase the whales.

After borrowing Mark Ervice's bow picker -- "Only in Homer, can you just go down (to the harbor) and say I need to go do some research and have someone give you their skiff," Matkin laughed -- the researcher and St-Amand headed out in hot pursuit. They were armed with a camera and a darting air rifle that allows Matkin to retrieve skin and blubber samples from the animals, which average 4 to 8 tons as adults and can live up to 50 years, according to a University of Alaska Sea Grant-published guide to marine mammals.

The killer whales worked their way toward the end of the Spit, cruising just yards off shore.

Brian Harrison, skipper of the pilot boat Katmai, was returning from a run out to a barge moored in the inner bay when he spotted the whales near the Small Boat Harbor. He stopped outside the mouth and let them pass off his bow.

Though Harrison is on the water more than most people, he said the sight of orcas was still a thrill.

"That's the first time we've seen then in the bay in a while," he said. "So we were pretty excited about it."

As the orcas rounded the end of the Spit, they swam close enough to the beach that the sound of their blowing was clearly audible to the awestruck bystanders there.

Matkin and St-Amand followed them as they moved farther offshore, heading in the direction of Bluff Point.

Matkin said the day was a big success, as he and St-Amand were able to get quite close to the casually porpoising whales, allowing them to collect the data for his work. A permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service gives Matkin permission to approach the animals, something that is prohibited under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Matkin said he was able to get good photos of all three killer whales -- he suspected a fourth individual was also in the area -- and he was able to get skin and blubber samples from the three as well. With the photos, he is able to identify the individual markings of the orcas. With skin samples, scientists like Matkin can check the animals' genetics. Blubber is analyzed to check for toxic contaminants.

Matkin said roughly 55 transient killer whales have been identified in the Southcentral coastal habitat that ranges from Prince William Sound to Kodiak. Estimates put the total number of orcas in the area at between 500 and 600 animals, he added.

Matkin said his study is under contract from a variety of agencies, including the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Sea Life Center in Seward and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustees Council.

Information on transient killer whales is particularly important because there is a lot of concern over the dramatic decline of Steller sea lion and sea otter populations in Western Alaska. Predation from marine mammal-eating killer whales is one popular theory for the declines in those two prey species, Matkin said, though he added that he isn't convinced in the case of sea otter die-off.

"I have trouble accepting that," he said. "We have a healthy population of sea otters here. I think (the transients) are mostly eating seals and porpoises."

One notable observation Matkin made on Tuesday was that the three whales cruised directly under an alarmed sea otter near the end of the Spit.

And on this day, sea otters were not on the menu.

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homernews.com.

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