Whales and Marine Mammals
Kodiak’s nutrient rich waters make it a perfect habitat for a variety of marine mammals including whales, Steller sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, Dall’s and white-sided porpoises. Today our waters are equally abundant and visitors to the island enjoy seeing all of these creatures from the water world.
Baleen whales are the largest marine mammal in the Kodiak area and include the Gray whale, the North Pacific humpback whale, the Fin whale, the Minke, and the Sei whale. Orca whales, which are also found patrolling our waters, are toothed whales and are actually part of the oceanic dolphin family.
Migration to northern waters typically begins in April with the appearance of the Gray whale followed by the fin, minke, humpback and sei. Orcas may be seen passing through Kodiak waters at any time of the year.
Kodiak Gray Whale Project
On May 28, 2000, a 36-ft long male Gray whale washed up on Pasagshak Beach on Kodiak Island. This unfortunate death turned out to be an excellent educational opportunity for Kodiak when a local school teacher asked for permission to use the skeleton for a project that would result in a fully reassembled skeleton to be displayed at the Kodiak National Wildlife Center interpretive center.
The whale was buried to allow the flesh to decompose. It remained there for four years until it was carefully excavated and removed to a storage facility in Kodiak where the bones would be cleaned and dried before being reassembled at the Refuge Center. It was installed in October of 2007. Visitors to Kodiak can see the whale skeleton and learn more about the project by visiting the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center at 402 Center Street in Kodiak.
More About Gray Whales
Gray whales make the longest migration of any mammal and may travel up to 12,000 miles from the Baja Peninsula in Mexico to arctic seas. They travel near shorelines along the continental shelf and are therefore easily seen along their migratory route. Gray whales migrate past Kodiak Island in from April – June on their way to northern waters and then again in the fall and early winter as they return to the south. Kodiak is one of the best locations along the migration route for people to view the whales because they swim so close to shore and boats are not required.
Cape Chiniak and Narrow Cape are two excellent places to view the whales from the top of coastal cliffs. The whales often swim directly under the cliffs so that lucky whale watchers can look directly down on their glistening backs and sometimes into their blowholes.
Endangered and Threatened Species
Humpback Whale (endangered)
The North Pacific Humpback whale population, estimated at 7,000, remains greatly depleted from pre-commercial whaling levels of about 15,000. Humpbacks have been protected from commercial harvest since 1966. Small numbers of humpbacks have been observed in bays of western and northwestern Kodiak Island. Limited data suggests that waters along the south side of the Alaska Peninsula to the eastern Aleutians may be of particular importance to summering humpbacks. Substantial numbers of humpbacks have been sighted between the Kenai Peninsula and Afognak Island with summer feedings occurred in Marmot Bay and Northeast Afognak Island. In the Barren Islands, as many as 50 individuals have been sighted simultaneously with at least 100 present in local areas.
Fin Whale (endangered)
The endangered North Pacific fin whale has been protected against commercial harvest since 1976; the population is currently estimated at approximately 15,000, less than half its number before it was protected. In Alaska, some whales spend the summer feeding over the continental shelf in the Gulf of Alaska including portions of lower Cook Inlet, Shelikof Strait, the outer banks of the Kodiak archipelago and along the Alaska Peninsula. Fall migration occurs from September to November with some fin whales consistently wintering in the Kodiak Island area. Peak occurrence in Kodiak is reached by May.
Sei Whale (endangered)
The North Pacific Sei whale population is estimated at 9,110. This species was protected in 1976. Sei whales are found offshore in the Gulf of Alaska and south of the Aleutian Islands in summer with numbers peaking in May and June. Southward migration begins in August or September.
Other Marine Mammals
Dall and white-sided porpoise are often seen riding a boat's waves, unlike the shy harbor porpoise.
Steller (northern) sea lions are year-round residents in the archipelago, often seen in boat harbors and haul-out areas. Sea otters, once hunted to near extinction, can be seen in sheltered waters near kelp beds. Harbor seals are found in protected inner bays and lagoons.
Endangered and Threatened Species
Steller sea lion (threatened)
The adult Steller sea lion population in Alaska was estimated at 28,658 animals in 1998 and is steadily declining, especially in the area from the central Aleutian Islands to the Kenai Peninsula in the Gulf of Alaska. Some of the most important sea lion rookeries in the Gulf of Alaska lie on the west side of Shelikof Strait between Katmai Bay and Hallo Bay including Sugarloaf Island, Marmot Island and Chirikof Island.
Northern Sea Otters (threatened)
In 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed northern sea otters in the Aleutian Islands as candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Recent data collected shows that the sea otter population in the Aleutians has declined by 70 percent in the past eight years. As few as 6,000 otters may remain in the entire Aleutian chain, down from a 1980s population of between 50,000 and 100,000 animals. Biologists speculate the cause of the decline may be due to increased deaths by killer whales.
Visit the NOAA National Marine Fisherieswebsite for more information and photos of marine life.
The Pinniped Entanglement Group
The Pinniped Entanglement Group is a collaborative effort between the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, NOAA Fisheries, the Aleut Community of St. Paul, and other members concerned about entanglements in marine debris. Our goal is to prevent entanglements through education, identify causes, and facilitate finding solutions.