“Being here in Sitka, and in Alaska in general, it’s obvious to us all that things are changing,” WhaleFest director Alex Thorne told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce. Hence the theme of this year’s WhaleFest Symposium: The Mysteries of Our Changing Seas.”

The Tootsie Rolls and Skittles will have only just stopped raining down on Lincoln Street from Alaska Day, when Sitkans step into their second major festival of the fall: WhaleFest.

The four-day event merged with the Sitka Sound Science Center in 2012, and has become equal parts a celebration of Sitka’s charismatic megafauna, and a scientific symposium.

WhaleFest director Alex Thorne. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

WhaleFest director Alex Thorne told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (10-16-19) that over 150 scientists, students, and other out-of-town visitors will make their way to Sitka for the opening day on October 31.

She expected anywhere between 800 to 1,000 local residents to pass through the doors of Harrigan Centennial Hall over the following three days to shop at the market, attend one of the numerous scientific presentations, or attend the keynote presentation.

The theme of WhaleFest this year is change.

“Being here in Sitka, and in Alaska in general, it’s obvious to us all that things are changing,” Thorne said. “Things are different. We had a beautiful, warm summer — I know that’s not normal to have that much sun, or that many warm days. So we wanted to take a look at some of the research that’s going on surrounding this, and that led us to ‘The Mysteries of Our Changing Seas’ for this year’s symposium.”

In coastal Alaska, the changing environment involves much more than climate at the surface. Thorne says this year’s agenda is exploring research on the connection between climate and some significant effects in the ocean. 

“We’re going to be looking at some of the big events that have occurred — that have kind of screamed to us, we now know — that something was changing, something was not right,” said Thorne. “Coral bleaching is probably one of the most in-your-face, easy-to-see (changes) that something is happening — something unusual.”

Other presentations will cover a range of topics, including “Forage Fish in Changing Seas,” “Hot Water in the Arctic,” and “One Ocean, One Health, One You.” In all, nine scientists will offer their work to the public, with a keynote address by Jackie Hildering on “Ocean Wonders.”

The costs to attend WhaleFest events range from free — for the Marine Art Reception, Film Fest, and Market Cafe — to $70 for the dinner banquet and keynote. As in past years, Mystic Seaport shantyman Don Sineti will perform a family concert, as well as appear at the Maritime Grind. And there will also be a WhaleFest 5K run and walk on Saturday mornings.