27th annual Sitka WhaleFest set for Nov. 3-5

‘Sound Science: Voices from the Ocean’ is the theme of the 2023 event

“Sound Science: Voices from the Ocean” is the theme of the 27th annual Sitka WhaleFest, set for Nov. 3-5 in Sitka, with events ranging from a three day science symposium to snorkeling and a marine-themed evening of music and dance.

The overall festival celebrates marine life through science education, community and storytelling, to educate all participants on the marine environment, with the science symposium for all at the core of the event. The goal is to provide education through a blend of local knowledge and scientific inquiry of the rich marine environment of the ocean, plus a marine-themed artisan market, local foods, an art show, interactive student sessions, and a fun run.

On the first day of WhaleFest, Lauren Bell, who has worked at the Sitka Sound Science Center as a research biologist, will discuss her research on how high latitude seaweed is expected to respond to climate change and consequences of these changes for the rest of the coastal food web.

Fisheries ecologist Kevin Boswell, director of the Marine Biology Program at Florida International University, will speak on using sound to observe complex behaviors of marine life. Kim Goetz, of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle, will discuss whether pingers reduce accidental captures of harbor porpoises in fishing nets in southeast Alaska.

Sonification of Alaskan coastal habitats is the theme of a second day symposium talk by Christina Bonsell and Matthew Burtner. Bonsell is a marine ecologist based in Anchorage whose work focuses on understanding how change in the environment affects coastal kelp, seagrasses and invertebrates, with a particular focus on the Arctic. Burtner, an Emmy-award winning Alaskan composer, sound artist and ecoacoustician, does research that collaborates closely with science and technology.

Humpback whales in the time of COVID-19, and their responses to changes in vessel traffic, will be the subject of a talk by Heidi Pearson, a professor of marine biology at the University of Alaska Southeast. Pearson has brought students to WhaleFest for the past 12 years.


Beaked whales and underwater sonar on a busy naval training range in California is the subject of a presentation on the agenda by Erin Falcone, a biologist with Marine Ecology & Telemetry Research, a small nonprofit based in Seabeck, Washington with a mission of conservation-driven marine mammal research and developing tools and techniques to support it. 

Hans Thewissen, whose current research focus is bowhead and beluga whales on Alaska’s North Coast, leads the speakers list for the final day of WhaleFest. He will discuss the evolution of sound and hearing in whales, and what kinds of sounds they make for all kinds of reasons.

Many different ways of listening to the environment to will be discussed by Inupiat hunter Billy Adams and Kate Stafford, a scientist who studies underwater sound.
WhaleFest will also pay tribute to the late Craig George, a renowned Arctic wildlife biologist who died this past summer in a rafting accident near Denali National Park. George, a retired senior biologist with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, was one of the world’s most distinguished whale experts.

Five speakers, including Stafford and Thewissen, will discuss George’s life and research in the Arctic.

Learn more about the festival and register for the events online at https://sitkawhalefest.org.