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Field Notes from Susan Payne

March 24, 1999

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

Northbound whales are being reported from Los Angeles to Seward, Alaska! Congratulations to Mike Brittain, captain of the M/V Renown. The first northbound cow/calf pairs were spotted in Los Angeles on March 11! Since then eight cow/calf pairs have been seen. As of Monday, March 22, 867 northbound gray whales have been counted by the American Cetacean Society (ACS) census from Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula near Los Angeles. The peak may be off Newport, Oregon and many whales continue to be seen off Westport, Washington.

The latest population abundance of gray whales has been estimated to be 26,635 by the National Marine Fisheries Service/National Marine Mammal Laboratory. A status review of the eastern Pacific stock of gray whales, Eschrichtius robustus, by 28 whale researchers was conducted at a workshop convened March 16-17 in Seattle, Washington. Research conducted in the last five years, following the removal of the gray whale from the Endangered Species List in June 1994, was reviewed. The group recommended keeping the present de-listed status because of the present stock abundance, despite potential jeopardy to their habitat posed by their proximity to populated coastlines.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, the coordinator for the ACS census at Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula (33.44 N,-118.24 W) is seeing the highest numbers of the census in the last two weeks. This year's northbound whale counts(867) on this date are above average compared to the last ten years' counts (750), but lower than the 15 year average. This year eight cow/calf pairs have been counted by March 22. This count is higher than usual; for the seven years before 1997, 0 were reported and in 1997 four cow/calf pairs had been sighted. The last southbound count was on March 9. The census is conducted daily from 0530-1800.

  • March 17 & 22: The highest northbound count of 46 gray whales, 0 southbound.
  • March 11: The first report of 2 northbound cow/calf pairs; 31 total northbound, 0 southbound.
  • March 21: 40 northbound, 0 southbound.
  • March 20: 40 northbound, with one breaching in front of census; 0 southbound.
  • March 15: 35 northbound, with 2 cow/calf pairs, playing with common dolphins; 0 southbound.

Mike and Winston report that on March 14 a female of a cow/calf pair was spotted with gillnet around her tail by Captain Frank on the M/V Voyager (33.44 N,-118.24 W). They contacted the whale rescue but due to timing and weather the whale continued on.

The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary reports come from the Whale Corp from aboard the M/V Condor. It sounds like they are having some exciting whale-watching, seeing not only gray whales, but mating gray whales, common dolphins, fin whales, and sea otters! I have only given you a taste of their sightings last week.

  • March 17: 500-600 common dolphins feeding on sardines (34. 22 N,-119 49).
  • March 17: Three gray whales in a courting/mating pod; swimming sideways, upside down, and rolling. 60-80 commonn dolphins swimming around the gray whales (34. 22 N,-119. 49 W).
  • March 16: Three gray whales; one small one breaching (34. 23 N,-119. 36 W).
  • March 14: Three northbound whales in mating pod (34 .23 N,-119. 43 W). Two pods of 3 whales, mating and occasionally showing tail flukes (34. 20 N,-119. 39 W).
  • March 13: Three to five gray whales, one a yearling and one a large whale with more than the usual barnacles; showing flukes and diving regular 3-5 minute dives (34. 24 N,-119. 41 W).

Virg's Landing of Morro Bay is reporting fewer whales last week than the week before. It appears his counts have dropped off dramatically which may mean the peak has passed there.

  • March 11: Many whales 5-6 miles offshore. Traveled with 2 large whales and 9 more were in sight (35. 19 N,-120. 54 W).
  • March 13: In three 2.5 hour trips saw 30 whales mostly in 2-4 whale groups. No calves. (35. 18 N,-120 54 W).
  • March 14: In three trips, 40 northbound whales along 45 fathom curve. No calves, but several yearlings and two large pods of dolphins (35. 18 N,-120. 54 W).
  • March 17: Three whales and two yearlings in 2.5 hours (35. 18 N,-120. 54 W).
  • March 20: Three northbound whales, one of these was breaching 4-6 times (35. 18 N,-120. 54 W).

Nancy Black of Monterey Bay Whale Watch reports that the peak of their migration is past. They are seeing about 15 per three hour trip and have not seen any cow/calf pairs yet (36.67N, -122.00W). They have been seeing large schools of common dolphins.

Two juvenile whales were spotted in San Francisco Bay and one thirty foot, 1-2 year old male was found dead as reported on March 17-18 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Here is a report emailed to Journey North by Mr. Haynie's fourth grade class at the Mira Vista School in Richmond, California near San Francisco. They may have seen the whale that died but alive! "We spotted a gray whale inside Richardson Bay by day marker #4 at about 1500. It was heading north at a pretty fast speed then suddenly stopped. It flopped its tail vigorously and turned itself south then proceeded out into San Francisco Bay at the same speed. It had lots of barnacles and was at least twenty five feet in length. We assumed the brown on it's skin was mud from Richardson Bay."

Christina Folger, reports that weather has again prevented Marine Discovery Tours in Newport from going out on the ocean March 20-22. She thinks they are in the peak of their northbound migraion and that 2-8 whales are heading northbound in their two hour trips. Whales seem to be traveling in smaller pods, of one and two whales, this year.

  • March 19: Ten whales in two hours 2-3 miles offshore in 30 fathoms of water (44.64 N,-124.00W).
  • March 17&18: Two-six northbound whales (44.64 N,-124.00W).
  • March 18: Fishermen report two orcas seen in the morning, one of which was a male, off of Seal Rocks (44.60 N, -124.52 W), 2.5 miles from shore.

Also in Newport, the Whale Watch Spoken Here program, March 20-27, is underway. Link to them for information from observation posts all along the Oregon coast.

In Westport, Washington, Geoff Grillo of Advantage Sport Fishing is still reporting many whales. The whales are definitely heading north this week and he estimates 10 northbound whales per hour.

  • March 21: Four gray whales inside Grays harbor (46.50 N, -124.50 W) and another up in the Chehalis River.

On Vancouver Island in Tofino, Jamie Bray of Jamie's Whaling Station, reports more bad weather, but they are seeing 6-8 an hour (49.083 N, -125.92 W). Phone problems prevented me from reaching Rod Palm, the principle investigator for the Strawberry Island Research Society.

Brian Congdon of Subtidal Adventures in Ucluelet, British Columbia is seeing a few whales, but the weather is still rough. They have been watching one winter resident near Forbes Island area on the east side of Barkley Sound (48.95 N, -125.42 W). He expects to see more whales here as there is a good show of herring.

In Sitka, Jan Straley from the University of Alaska, is keeping her ears open for the first whales to be sighted in Alaska! She shared with me that John Calambokidis, Research Biologist of the Cascadia Research, had photographed a gray whale in Sitka last November, and has positively identified this gray whale as a "seasonal resident" from Washington state. John Calambokidis says that they identify these whales by their markings and in 1998 they have identified about 200 individuals from northern California to Southeast Alaska. Their research focus is on these "seasonal residents", whales that feed for extended periods in the spring, summer, and fall off the Pacific Northwest.

Apparently, the first gray whales snuck by Sitka and were seen by Mike Brittain captain of the M/V Renown out in front of Seward, Alaska. Last year on March 22 and in the same location the "first" gray whale of the year was seen. Fantastic! Before Sunday, Mike had not been out for a week due to storms at sea.

  • March 22: Three whales were spotted half way between Cape Resurrection and Rugged Island (59.85 N, -149.39 W).
  • March 21: 0 gray whales in the same area

With gray whales approaching Kodiak, I better get busy and contact the Whale Alert volunteers! We have not had any reports of Gray whales yet! Whale Fest Kodiak 1999, April 16-25, will include a lecture and slide show by the Kodiak Middle School class that recently went on a Baja '99 Adventure.

This weekend we went looking for signs of spring around Kodiak but other than a faint whiff of cottonwood trees I noticed only the lingering snow. This morning we woke up to yet another bit of snow. On March 24 sunrise is 0701 and sunset is 1932. I look forward to our next report; there should be whales in Kodiak by then and maybe other signs of spring too!

Answer #3: Benthic means: relating to, or occurring on the bottom, underlying a body of water. Benthos refers to those animals and plants living on the bottom of the sea, lake or river (crawling or burrowing there, or attached as with sea weeds and sessile animals), from high water mark down to deepest levels. Organisms feeding primarily upon the benthos are termed benthophagous(Abercrombie et al. 1990).

Abercrombie, M, Hickman,M, Johnson,M.L,and Thain, M. 1990.The New Penguin Dictionary of Biology. Clays Ltd, St. Ives plc. pp. 600.

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

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