Alaska town attracts whale colony each summer

PETERSBURG, Alaska -- Sitka, another ethnic town in southeastern Alaska, holds its annual Whalefest in November.

Petersburg residents said that is because the whales winter there and summer here.

"In the summer they come inland," said Dave Berg, owner of Viking Travel in Petersburg.

Reinforcing the argument that Petersburg is a great place to view whales, a team of researchers from the Alaska Whale Foundation has been gathering data on the whales' communication and feeding habits, genetic and social organization, prey manipulation and general whale identification.

The AWF, headquartered in Seattle, had been researching humpbacks here for about 10 years.

Whales normally do not form bonds, but they do team up in a feeding technique known as bubble-net feeding.

Berg described bubble-net feeding this way:

"They find a school of herring and, while the other whales wait off to the side, one will swim around the school and emit air from its blow hole in a pattern that confuses the fish.

"All of the whales then come up under the fish in the center of the bubble net, which is 25 to 40 yards across, with their mouths open."

The AWF team also is studying the raucous feeding calls the whales emit.

The hearing of the herring is typically acute and the screams seem to emanate at the maximum frequency range for that sound, according to the researchers.

They believe the whales dive down below the herring schools and use the sounds to disorient their prey.

"We have great whales," said Linda Quarles of the Petersburg Chamber of Commerce.

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