U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of Biogeography (J. Biogeogr.) (2009) 36, 410–426.


Aim To assess the distribution, group size, seasonal occurrence and annual trends of cetaceans.

Location The study area included all major inland waters of Southeast Alaska.

Methods Between 1991 and 2007, cetacean surveys were conducted by observers who kept a constant watch when the vessel was underway and recorded all cetaceans encountered. For each species, we examined distributional patterns, group size, seasonal occurrence and annual trends. Analysis of variance (anova F) was used to test for differences in group sizes between multiple means, and Student’s t-test was used to detect differences between pairwise means. Cetacean seasonal occurrence and annual trends were investigated using a generalized linear model framework.

Results Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) were seen throughout the region, with numbers lowest in spring and highest in the fall. Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) and minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) distributions were more restricted than that reported for humpback whales, and the low number of sightings precluded evaluating seasonal trends. Three killer whale (Orcinus orca) eco-types were documented with distributions occurring throughout inland waters. Seasonal patterns were not detected or could not be evaluated for resident and offshore killer whales, respectively; however, the transient eco-type was more abundant in the summer. Dall’s porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli) were distributed throughout the region, with more sightings in spring and summer than in fall. Harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) distribution was clumped, with concentrations occurring in the Icy Strait/Glacier Bay and Wrangell areas and with no evidence of seasonality. Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens) were observed only occasionally, with more sightings in the spring. For most species, group size varied on both an annual and seasonal basis.

Main conclusions Seven cetacean species occupy the inland waters of Southeast Alaska, with distribution, group size, seasonal occurrence and annual trends varying by species. Future studies that compare spatial and temporal patterns with other features (e.g. oceanography, prey resources) may help in identifying the key factors that support the high density and biodiversity of cetaceans found in this region. An increased understanding of the region’s marine ecology is an essential step towards ensuring the long-term conservation of cetaceans in Southeast Alaska.