Can you imagine living in a Hoonah that wasn’t on the water? You’re right— absolutely not! Port Frederick, its neighboring waters and all the resources swimming in them are a huge part of Hoonah’s culture. To celebrate the marine environment, life, and our connections with it, we brought Whalefest to our community.
Normally hosted in Sitka with the Sitka Sound Science Center, Whalefest is a festival that raises awareness on and educates participants about the marine environment and issues we’re facing today. Students involved attend seminars with scientists from around the world, learn about various marine topics, participate in hands-on workshops, and engage with other passionate students from around Southeast Alaska through games and discussions. As if that weren’t great enough, the students have the option to gain college credit while attending this 3-day virtual event.
Four of Hoonah’s youth not only participated in the virtual Whalefest event this year, but signed up for the Whalefest “course” to gain college credit too! Through this awesome opportunity, the students got to learn about cultural connections within the marine environment and how they relate to our own cultures.
Cultural Connections within the Marine Environment
Hal Whitehead, a PhD researcher and professor at Dalhousie University, kicked off Whalefest with an informative seminar on the culture of sperm whales. Sperm whales are pretty incredible animals— they have the largest brain and make the loudest noise of any animal on earth, and can spend about an hour diving between 1,000-4,000 feet hunting for giant squid and other prey. They spend most their time way below the water’s surface, but when they come up to breathe they also socialize. They are incredibly social animals and even have cultural variances between clans (families). One way you can see this is through their communication. Sperm whales communicate through “codas”, a patterned series of clicks, and each clan has a distinct set of codas they use to communicate with the members of their family. Each clan teaches their codas to their young, passing codas down from generation to generation. Cultural behavior within sperm whale clans can also be seen in their hunting and evading practices. One clan, hunted by humans, watched and learned the humans’ hunting strategies and passed that information to their young. Within 25 years, the humans’ success rate in hunting that clan dropped by 58%! Just like humans, sperm whales illustrate culture by teaching their young how to communicate and how to navigate challenges in order to survive.
Similarly, the North Gulf Oceanic Society’s Research Director Dan Olsen described how killer whales demonstrate culture through communication, hunting, and other behaviors. Each pod of killer whales has unique calls to communicate with family members, and how they transmit these calls (using echolocation, whistles, and family-specific pulsed calls) differs too. Not only that, but collecting and studying king salmon scales from killer whale scat has revealed that the same pods hunt at the same locations at the same time of year. This shows that killer whale pods share food and introduce their young to their specific hunting grounds. Another interesting behavior, found in only some pods, is beach rubbing— and no one knows why those pods do it. Additionally, the survival rates of orcas within a pod are highest when a member from the eldest generation, like a grandmother, is still alive. All this evidence supports the idea that killer whales, like sperm whales and humans, have unique familial cultures that they teach to their offspring.
Culture within and between humans and the marine environment was explored through other topics too. Maija Katak Lukin, the Tribal Environmental Manager for the Maniilaq Association, shared how the Inupiaq’s caribou and beluga whale hunting strategies have changed over time as conditions have changed; yet at no point has their subsistence lifestyle become unsustainable. How humans aim to conserve endangered species such as leatherback turtles has changed too, as Deasy Lontoh (a researcher studying leatherback turtles) explained during her seminar. She advocates adopting holistic strategies to better conserve leatherback turtles, in which predators are accounted for, public outreach is maximized, and other threats to turtle nests like warming sand temperatures and subsistence uses are monitored and mitigated. Through these discussions, we can observe how humans’ interactions with and culture around marine environments have changed over time.
Thank You, Whalefest!
We were thankful to still have the option to engage local youth in an opportunity as awesome as Whalefest despite the many challenges COVID-19 has presented. Offering opportunities for students to get college credit, learn more about topics they’re passionate about, and reconnect with the natural environment by assessing their cultural connections with it is something HIA Environmental strives to do more in the future. Thank you to all the speakers and those who made Whalefest possible this year!
Written by Arianna Lapke
Youth Program Coordinator