Picture of Heidi Pearson

Heidi Pearson

Phone: 907-796-6271 (office)
Email: hcpearson@alaska.edu
Home: http://uashome.alaska.edu/~HCPEARSON
Office location: 205 C Anderson



Humans are integral components of healthy ecosystems and thus the BREACH lab also studies human impacts on marine mammals and environmental behaviors in people. We are currently studying the costs and benefits of whale watching in Juneau, Alaska. This study was prompted by growing concern about the impact of whale watch vessels on the behavior and health of humpback whales. The potential for short-term behavioral disturbances to have long-term fitness consequences that ultimately lead to population decline is of particular concern. On the other hand, whale watching can have positive effects on whale watch passengers by spreading educational and conservation messages. This project is funded by Alaska Sea Grant.

One objective of this study is to identify the ecological costs of whale watching by using a theodolite (i.e., surveyor’s instrument) to determine if whale movement and behavioral patterns are affected by whale watch vessel presence. We are particularly interested in determining if there is a certain threshold in number of boats or duration of viewing that leads to changes in whale behavior. We are also interested in determining if whale watch vessel presence changes feeding or maternal behaviors. 

Another objective of this study is to identify the benefits of whale watching by measuring the educational and conservation value of whale watching to passengers. We are surveying passengers before, just after, and 6 months after their whale watch to examine if there are changes in knowledge, values, attitudes, and behaviors regarding whales and the environment that may be attributed to the whale watch experience.  

Results will be shared with NOAA for use in modification of whale watch guidelines and regulations as necessary. The whale watch industry in Juneau is vital to the community's economic viability and so it is hoped the the results of the study will help to create a sustainable industry that is healthy for whales and people alike.  

Initial research on the benefits of whale watching was conducted by Gabrille Lopez (BS, Stony Brook University) during the 2012 Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at UAS. Jacopo Di Clemente (MSc, University of Southern Denmark) then conducted initial research on the ecological costs of whale watching during Summer 2015. Currently, Ali Rinaldi is continuing with both aspects of this research for her MS thesis at the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.