Whale research center comes ashore in Southeast

A whale research foundation working in Southeast Alaska for the last 20 years is coming ashore. The Center for Coastal Conservation has acquired the former general store in Warm Springs Bay, on eastern Baranof Island, and has plans to expand its research programs beyond humpback whales.

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The Alaska Whale Foundation’s facility in Warm Springs Bay can support up to 6 scientists and volunteers, with internet access and a fleet of small craft. Photo shared via KCAW.org.
The Alaska Whale Foundation’s facility in Warm Springs Bay can support up to 6 scientists and volunteers, with internet access and a fleet of small craft. Photo shared via KCAW.org.

Don’t picture a glass office building in Warm Springs — or an Auke Bay Laboratory, or even a Sitka Sound Science Center.

The Center for Coastal Conservation is ambitious, but small.

“Right now it is primarily a single building, sitting on this little plot of land there. But even that, we kind of have ideas of how it’s going to expand in the next couple of years, into multiple buildings, and multiple opportunities for all kinds of groups to be there at the same time.”

Andy Szabo is the director of the Alaska Whale Foundation, the parent organization of the Center for Coastal Conservation. He’s spent the last 15 summers in the area, doing graduate research on whales — primarily out of a 50-foot wooden boat based in Petersburg.

Andy Szabo speaking during a 2015 Whalefest cruise in Sitka. (UAS photo/Owen Kindig)
Andy Szabo speaking during a 2015 Whalefest cruise in Sitka. (UAS photo/Owen Kindig)

Szabo says the foundation has traded out the boat for a shoreside facility, and wants to turn its attention towards other ecological sciences.

“What we’re hoping to do is expand our programs into terrestrial research, coastal research, marine research. We want to start doing some inventory projects and some monitoring programs. And support some education efforts, as well.”

But whales will still be in the research picture. The center continues to provide logistical support for SEASWAP, the sperm whale avoidance project, run by the University of Alaska, the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, the Sitka Sound Science Center, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“It just so happens that it’s happening right on our doorstep of the new center. You can literally look from the porch and watch sperm whales out there depredating longline gear. There’s also this growing issue of humpback whales depredating hatchery-reared salmon. Hidden Falls is only five miles away from where we are. So those whales are moving past our little center there, and going up and feeding on salmon in front of the hatchery. And there’s a lot of interest in addressing those problems and others — sea otters and so forth.”

And with interest comes funding. Szabo says that in the past, the Alaska Whale Foundation didn’t need to raise more than the money needed to keep one boat running for the summer. Those needs will grow, if the center follows through on its plans for expansion. But Szabo believes the resources will be there.

“A lot of tourists are coming through there. A lot of fishermen are coming through there. The trolling fleet comes through. The longline fleet comes through. So it’s a great place to connect with all sorts of the region’s stakeholders, but also just tourists that are coming up here.”

Szabo says he has made friends in Warm Springs over the many years he’s been doing research nearby, and he’s sensitive to the community’s character. Even if it puts up another structure or two, the Center for Coastal Conservation should remain inconspicuous in the boardwalk community of about 15 houses.

Inconspicuous, but exciting.

“Things are evolving organically, but they’re expanding rapidly. Last year was actually the first year we acquired title to that facility. We’d been working in there, but since that time it seems things have been growing at a rapid pace. I think next summer’s going to be really big in terms of the number of people out there, the number of projects we’re doing, the number of volunteers. We’re looking to develop a strategic plan right now with some regional and national stakeholders. So I think the next six months is going to be pretty big for us.”

Szabo says the Center for Coastal Conservation will operate between the months of April and October in Warm Springs Bay. He has plans to open an office in Sitka for the rest of the year. Warm Springs, he says, is “a little dark and lonely in the winter.”