For 20 years Sitka’s Whalefest has occupied our town during the first week on November. The festival is centered on a science symposium but integrates the performing arts, visual arts, education and outdoor adventure into a package that engages the community and brings visitors from as far as Australia and New Zealand.
The Symposium dove into topics ranging from harpoon heads found bowhead whales captured off of the city formally known as Barrow (now known as Utqiagvik) to how whale poop can help sequester carbon. Some of the Harpoon heads are really old, from stone points to harpoons last used by Boston whalers in the 1880s, showing that bowheads can live well over 100 years (or as Billy Adams, a Utqiagvik whaling captain old us, “two lifetimes of a man”). The presentation on Orca (Killer whales) traced their evolution from a feared beast to a beloved icon. The presentation on whale migrations and the science of how they may navigate pointed to whole new theories on how animals can home in on breeding and feeding areas, using a combination of gravity (It is stronger near the poles) and magnetic fields.
There was an art exhibit of maritime art, much of it presented in cooperation with the Sitka Fine Arts Camp, and a keynote speech by Ray Troll, Ketchikan artist, on the convergence of art and science.
Whalefest features an educational program that works with science in the schools on the grade school and high school levels and gives university students a chance to interact with scientists.
Between sessions we can stroll through a market featuring maritime related products, books and stalls staffed by representatives of conservation organizations. The High School music program provided music during breaks and sold soup and cookies to raise money to go to a music festival.
Two of the most popular features of Whalefest are preforming arts events, the Maritime Grind, featuring music and dance performed by Sitkans and visitors and the Don Sineti concert. Sineti is the Shanty man from the Historic Mystic Seaport. He performs sea songs but the concert has evolved into a joyful mix of sea songs, children’s concert and 60s hootenanny.
But, for me, the highlight is the annual pair of wildlife (or in this case wilddeath) cruises where we actually get out to see whales. This year we cruised to the corpse of a whale that washed up on Olga Strait in August. Researchers did a necropsy on the whale and have marked the probable cause of death as a ship strike because of broken bones. But the whale had a high level of toxins so there is a possibility that the whale died first and was later hit by a boat, although it was well fed and looked strong. (To see a separate post with more pics of the Wildlife cruise click here.)
If I lived in a big city I probably would not attend a science symposium. I first attended Whalefest because I have friends who organize it. But now I schedule my traveo around Whalefest so I don’t miss it. The organizers have found a way of presenting science to a broader audience without dumbing it down. Whalefest integrates science, art, the humanities and adventure in a way that involves the community. More importantly, it involves young people. Some of those who attended as students two decades ago are now professionals sharing their findings and enthusiasm.