KODIAK (AP) -- Killer whales were counted over three days last month as part of a study to better understand the relationship between the whales and Steller sea lions.
The count was conducted from July 19 though July 21, with mariners from the Pribilofs to Dutch Harbor to Sitka participating.
Counters said they witnessed spectacular displays of breaching and socializing, and at least one killer whale eating salmon.
The data is being collected for researchers from the North Pacific Universities Marine Mammal Research Consortium,'' said University of British Columbia professor and research director Andrew Trites.
''The purpose of the survey is to get a minimum estimate of killer whales in Alaska. We know virtually nothing about killer whales from Prince William Sound across to the Aleutians,'' he said.
Trites said researchers are collecting data to get a better idea of how many killer whales there are in Alaska waters and where they are. With that information, specialists can be sent to do in-depth studies.
The decline in Steller sea lions is motivating this study.
''We have done some calculations that suggest that it would take very few killer whales to account for a significant portion of the missing Steller sea lions,'' Trites said.
Scientists also would like to know if there is a difference between the mammal-eating whales, called transients, and resident whales that eat only fish.
The Alaska survey is modeled after a similar survey in British Columbia.
''We want to do the same thing in Alaska -- jump start killer whale research by getting fishermen, the public and anybody else who has got an interest in marine mammals to let us know if they have seen killer whales on certain dates,'' he said. ''We're going to do it again in the wintertime, and we're discussing doing it again next summer. It depends on what sort of feedback we get.''
About half of the people who participated in the survey were the general public, a quarter were commercial fishermen, and the others were split between commercial whale-watching operators, the Alaska ferries, Coast Guard, and other researchers.
Trites is urging people who participated in the count to send their completed forms in.
''It's a shame if people spent time looking for whales and didn't send the form in,'' Trites said.
More information about the study can be found at www.AlaskaKillerWhales.org
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