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Harbor porpoises in Halibut Cove Lagoon

Sebastiaan Koreman Wikimedia Commons

Bring your lunch to Kachemak Bay Campus on Friday, January 24 from noon to 1 p.m. and learn about the secret life of harbor porpoises in Halibut Cove Lagoon.

It’s part of a series of free lectures hosted by the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Biology Professor and NERRS Research Associate Debbie Tobin is head of the local Homer Marine Mammal Stranding Network. She and Marc Webber, Deputy Manager of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and Research Associate with the Marine Mammal Center in California, will share their ongoing studies and photographs and introduce a community-driven, citizen science research project.

The latest NOAA estimate of harbor porpoises indicates a population of 66,000 in Alaska, with 40,000 of those residing in the Gulf of Alaska.

Tobin and Webber have been studying the local population for the last three years. They run into the lagoon at high tides and turn their motor and electronics off. They do have a research permit. Approaching marine mammals without one is a violation of the Federal Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Webber says the goal is being able to identify specific porpoises.

“We’ve actually found in the lagoon that the animals will come over around by the boat. And we’ve actually started to get some photographs and what we want to do with those photographs is see if we can tell individuals apart. So if we get these animals and can predict where they’re going to surface, we’d like to know if this is a stable place to find food and/or maybe seek shelter. “

While other marine mammals show parts of their bodies by fluking, breaching or tail slapping, the harbor porpoise doesn’t spend much time at the surface of the water. According to Professor Tobin, that makes them difficult to study.

“They are very small. Most people don’t even know that they’re here, they are elusive, a bit shy, it seems. You don’t typically see that much activity above the water, but if you know where to look you can see distinctive markings on the individuals," said Tobin.

Webber says he became fascinated with harbor porpoises about a dozen years ago when he joined colleagues at the Marine Mammal Center near San Francisco.

“It’s important to know anywhere where these marine mammals species occur, where they mate.
They have to have these areas protected or at least available for mating or maybe raising their calves.
It provides insight into what habitat requirements they have and that’s what we’re keen to figure out too for their conservation," Webber said.

In addition to their work with the porpoise, Tobin and Webber have been involved with the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Network and are hoping to start a Beluga monitoring project in Kachemak Bay. They want to take a census of marine mammals in the bay. Tobin says they are collecting historical and current information and photographs from the public.

“Doesn’t matter how far back they go, 1950, 1970, 1990. If you have any idea of what kind of behavior they’re undertaking. If they’re traveling or breeching or feeding. But, even just where they are, or where and when and what species and if you have photos, great, said Tobin” 

Community members interested in learning more about marine mammals of Alaska can register for Tobin and Webber’s class at the college this April. It’s a month-long, 2-credit class on Thursday nights and will include Saturday field trips, to Seward to look for gray whales, the Kenai or Kasilof Rivers as part of the Alaska Beluga Monitoring Network and on Kachemak Bay to look for Stellar Sealions and other marine mammals, including the harbor porpoises in Halibut Cove Lagoon.