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Field Notes from Susan Payne


Susan Payne with her family Don Dumm, and Will Ross H. Dumm

More gray whales are now on their way north! As of Monday, February 22, 65 northbound gray whales had been counted by the American Cetacean Society (ACS) census from Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula near Los Angeles. Monterey Bay Whale Watch reports their "first" northbound whale on February 11 and now 4-10 gray whales in three hours of observation (36.67N, -122.00W). Storms on the West Coast are preventing some whale watch efforts all along the coast.

The southbound migration continues off Los Angeles and Monterey. CNN reported, on February 18, that the gray whales had arrived a month later than usual at their breeding lagoons in Mexico. I will try to find some confirmation of this report.

Here in Kodiak, as elsewhere on the migration route, there appears to be two peaks to the northward migration. The first whales to head north are juveniles and males; the second peak consists of mostly females and their newborn calves. In my last report I mentioned that we should see our first whales by the third week of March. Two years ago we had our first report off Kodiak on March 18 and last year on March 23. I am certain that we may have missed the actual "first" whale of the season both years because our Whale Alert program is not a daily census. The first peak passes Cape St. Elias (59.80N, -144.58W) about mid-April and Unimak Pass (50.33N, -164.92W) in late April, early May. Last year the first Kodiak pulse passed around April 5-12, while two years ago it was April 14-21. According to Dave Rugh, of the National Marine Mammal Lab, the second peak may pass Kodiak towards mid-May to late June.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger has completed her mid-ACS census report. She shows in a graph that in years past the peak of the northbound migration from Point Vicente has been somewhere around February 27-March 8. In Alisa's1999 mid census update, she tells us that on February 15 the gray whale migration shifted from southbound to northbound. The northbound migration this year is off to a slow start, but should pick up this next week. Wind and poor visibility are making the sighting conditions difficult. Mike and Winston are reporting the ACS whale watch daily counts. All sightings are from Point Vicente on the Palos Verde Peninsula (33.44N, -118.24W).

  • February 10: 3 northbound gray whales.
  • February 12: a humpback whale seen in the morning and afternoon.
  • February 16: 7 northbound and 4 southbound gray whales. Two fin whales 2.5 miles off Point Vicente in the morning by census volunteers; one in the afternoon. Morning sighting confirmed by the whale watch boat Voyager of Redondo Sport Fishing. One of the fin whales stayed with the boat for an hour and even swam under the boat! (33.44 N, -118.24 W).
  • February 17: One northbound and one southbound gray whale spotted; foggy and windy conditions. One fin whale approached the Voyager within 5 ft and stayed near the boat for an hour and a half. Captain Frank estimated the whale to be 80 feet in Length.
  • February 18: 0 whales spotted, perhaps due to the foggy conditions that day
  • February 21: 4 southbound and one northbound gray whales.
  • February 22: 65 total northbound whales to date. No cow/calf pairs.
    (33.44N,-118.24 N)

Nancy Black of Monterey Bay Whale Watch was out on the boat when I spoke to her Monday, February 22. The last three days were slow sighting days, but now they are seeing more northbound whales. All their sightings are from near Point Pinos in Monterey Bay (36.67N, -122.00W).

  • February 11: "first" northbound sighting of one whale.
  • February 22: 4-10 northbound gray whales in three hours whale-watch trip. Still 2-3 southbound whales per trip.

At the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary, Julie Goodson, the new Education Coordinator, reports sightings made by the whale-watch charters M/V Condor and M/V Rachel G. They have also been seeing Bottlenose and Common Dolphins, and even Dall's porpoise in 100 fathoms of water.

  • February 19: 2 northbound gray whales reported by M/V Condor(no latitude/longitude provided)
  • February 20: M/V Condor reports one northbound 3 miles offshore of the Santa Barbara harbor entrance (34.4 N, -119.69W). Two northbound whales in the afternoon close to shore near Hope Ranch (34.44 N,-119.75 W)
  • February 21: M/V Condor reports one northbound in the Santa Barbara Channel at Platform Holly at 4:00 pm (34.39N, -119.90W).
  • February 22: M/V Rachel G reports one whale milling around in 168 feet of water associated with sealions, possibly feeding (34.36 N, -119.66).

Christina Folger, the Science Director for Marine Discovery Tours in Newport, tells me that they have not been out whale-watching for three weeks because of the stormy weather, but she is keeping her ears open for gray whale news.

Rod Palm, the principle investigator for the Strawberry Island Research Society, will be looking for gray whales in Clayoquot Sound everyday from Radar Hill near Tofino, British Columbia (49.10 N, -125.93 W). Rod's group is in their eighth year of killer whale research. He tells me that the northern migration starts off Tofino in mid-February, peaking in mid-April.

Susan Payne
National Marine Fisheries Service
Alaska Fisheries Science Center
Kodiak, Alaska

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