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Gray Whale Migration Update: May 5, 1999

Today's Report Includes:

Latest News From the Gray Whale Observation Posts

Whales Forge Further North
Gray whales continue pushing further north up the Bering Sea. On April 27, 100 gray whales were spotted between Right Hand Point (58.75N,-159.92W) and Summit Island (58.90N,-160.18W) off Togiak. The first cow/calf pairs also reached Alaska, as reported in last week's News Flash.

In the south, ACS census observers are seeing very few gray whales now. The cow/calf count has increased since the last report, but it is still behind last year's count at this time.

The Highlights of Susan's report are provided below:

Northbound Sightings

Very few whales are being seen now at Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula (33.44N,-118.24W) near Los Angeles. This year's northbound count is 1,344 gray whales and cow/calf pair count is 22 as of May 1, reports Alisa Schulman-Janiger of the ACS census.

Better Late Than Never--Still Waiting For Calves
Only one to two cow/calf pairs are being seen by ACS on any given day, and six northbound gray whales is the highest count, recorded on April 27 and 30. They had 162 cow/calf pairs last year by this time, and ACS is now wondering when the peak of the cow/calf pairs will be this year?

Further north, near Carmel, this year's northbound cow/calf count is later than any previous year so far. At Granite Canyon (36.52N,-121.92W), Wayne Perryman reports 53 cow/calf pairs as of May 1, as compared to 350 cow/calf pairs last year, and an average for this time of 150 cow/calf pairs. This is 100 behind our previous low count for this date. Wayne has had some recent reports of cows and calves still off Baja so we can
comfortably say the migration is late. He won't know what the final count looks like until the party is over. Wayne has conducted a cow/calf census at this location since 1994 as part of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center. For further discussion about this cow/calf census, please see the Challenge Question #6 answer below.

Nancy Black of Monterey Bay Whale Watch (36.67N,-122.00W) reports 1-2 northbound gray whales per three hour trip. She has not seen any alive cow/calf pairs on her watch. The grays are still feeding on krill.

I was unable to reach Christina Folger, of Marine Discovery Tours in Newport, Oregon for their information. But the Spring 1999 Whale Watch Week Preliminary Notes gives some interesting numbers for Whale Watch Spoken Here. Mike Rivers reports that as of April 21, 1479 gray whales had been counted!

Waves of Whales

Susan Payne with son Will Ross H. Dumm

Further north on Vancouver Island, Rod Palm of the Strawberry Island Research Society in Tofino (49.10 N,-125.93 W) reports four whales in Grice Bay (49.20 N,-126.10 W) that seem to have settled in for the summer, and are bottomfeeding. On April 24, Rod emailed me that "waves" of whales were passing by with a dozen spotted on the horizon at any given time, but he also reports on Monday, May 3, only occasional single whales passing alongshore.

Jan Straley from the University of Alaska in Sitka reported that on April 27 she had heard of gray whales "streaming by" off Cape Edgecumbe (56.99N,-135.85W).

In Seward, Leslie Hines of Kenai Fjords Tours continues to have exciting sightings, even two more cow/calf pairs! On April 21 a tour with the Bartlett and Seward High School on board saw four whales, two positively identified as barnacle-encrusted adults (59.53N,-149.23W). On April 18, a Kenai Fjords tour with the Golden View Middle School from Anchorage on-board, saw their "first" cow/calf pair with another closely associated gray whale, an "outrider", and two other whales separated by a quarter mile (59.53 N,-149.28 W). These six whales were reported as a Journey North News Flash on April 26.

Here in Kodiak, now that Whale Fest is over, the Whale Alerts are slowing down. Whalewatching a week ago still seemed very good. A yearling was reported this last weekend by M/V Ten Bears, but I have not had any more reports of cow/calf pairs. Many sightings were reported at Narrow Cape (59.71N,-149.53W), including what appeared to be a cow and a yearling calf about 25 feet in length in the company of two very large adults on May 1.

In False Pass we have another contact named Buck Laukitis who lives right on Isanotski straits at the narrows of False Pass. On April 16-20, Buck reported 4-10 gray whales each day in front of their house (54.85N,-163.40W).He tells me that he has been keeping track of whales there for the last ten years. April 16 is when the sightings of gray whales started to happen in False Pass, and this is about normal timing. Buck says that the prime viewing will last another month and on through June.

On Monday, May 3, John Concilius of the False Pass school tells me that many gray whales have been sighted by fishermen outside the Pass on the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula (54.73N,-163.21W). They have not seen them in front of the school dock yet.

Jim Browning of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported that during aerial surveys on April 27, they spotted one hundred gray whales between Right Hand Point (58.75N,-159.92W) and Summit Island (58.90N,-160.18W) off Togiak. Apparently they had been seen on April 26. This year's sighting is eleven days later than last year's April 16 sighting.

Waiting for the Thaw
Jim reports that the whales were in ice clear water nearshore, but that the pack ice is five miles offshore stretching southward for another 20-30 miles. He thinks the whales may have had to swim under the ice, or have followed leads to get where they are.

Up in Gambel (63.83N,-146.68 W) on St. Lawrence Island, Larry Dickerson, a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service reports that there is still so much ice, and still no word of gray whales.

Whale Fest Kodiak attendance soared this year, especially for the events on Saturday, April 24. In the morning, the Alutiiq Museum and the Kodiak Island National Wildlife Refuge cohosted the Families Understanding Nature Program focusing on archeology, Alutiiq culture, and whales. In the afternoon, over a hundred people came to learn from Dr. Gil Bane about sharks and to dissect a sleeper shark at the Kodiak College. That evening, the Oceans of the Whale Poetry Fest at the Mill Bay Coffee Company was also a packed house. Local poets, Leslie Fields, Toby Sullivan, Danielle Jones, Jordan Sullivan, and Lisa Polito, read their own works and other well-known literature about whales. The open-microphone proved to be a great success as a woman from Nelson Island gave us her whaling poem and dance in her native language. It was a wonderful way to finish Whale Fest!

With Whale Fest officially over, my family and I are focusing our attention on home this week. The ice finally went out of our bay on Friday, April 23, and when we went home on Sunday, April 25, we could park our skiff in front of the house. On Wednesday, April 21, we saw the first three American black oystercatchers in the bay; now our peace and quiet is over with these very beautifully noisy birds back in the area. The following Wednesday, April 28, I counted 20 paired pigeon guillemots. The buds are coming out on the elderberry bushes. But on May 1, my favorite holiday, it was sunny but very cold, and not a flower in the yard. Where are the bear tracks on the mountains? The days continue to lengthen: on May 5, sunrise is 0509 and sunset is 2105 for a total of 15 hours and 55 minutes of daylight.

Mike and Winston want to reward all students who participated in the Journey North program with a Kool Kid Award. Apparently, the award was Winston's idea!

Oh Baby! Discussion of Challenge Question #6
In our last report we asked: "What reasons can you think of for the lower Cow/calf count so far this season, as compared to last year at this time?"

To answer this question I had to Ask an Expert and found two: Dave Rugh of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory and Wayne Perryman of the Southwest Fisheries Research Center. Here are some possible reasons:
  1. Late migration: Wayne Perryman says that the northbound adult/juvenile phase of this year's migration looks about normal, but maybe a bit late. In the last five years, the cow/calf pair migration has started after the adults and juveniles have mostly passed by. They will not know if this year is late until the peak has passed. Possibly the northbound migration is late because more whales traveled further south this year?
  2. Low recruitment: Gray whales usually give birth every other year. Wayne Perryman has identified in his cow/calf pair census at Piedras Blancas that there is "odd" and "even" year variability in fucundity; the "odds" seem to have greater variability, 500 calves in 1997 to 194 calves in 1995, than the "even" year whales which have produced a regular number of calves, 325 calves in 1994 to 430 calves in 1998. Wayne cautions that the variability in the "odd" year whales may be an El Nino effect. Wayne also saw fewer pregnant females in this year's aerial survey of southbound pregnant females which leads him to the conclusion that recruitment may be low this year.
  3. El Nino vs La Nina events: Last year, an El Nino year, the migration was early; this year is a La Nina year, and they may just be late.
  4. Did some cow/calf pairs slip by the Granite Canyon Census early? Wayne Perryman acknowledges that there is a possibility that some cow/calf pairs went by before the census started on March 22; they had their first cow/calf pair on March 23, and then a few days passed before they counted any again. Remember the ACS census at Point Vicente saw their first cow/calf pair March 11. This may explain our "first" cow/calf pairs in Alaska on April 18 in Kodiak and April 20 in Seward. Dave Rugh explained that it takes about a month for the cow/calf pairs to travel from Oregon to Cape Sarichef on Unimak Island according to a study by Polly Hessing in 1981.

Challenge Question #7:
"Can you define the term 'fecundity'?"

(To respond to this Challenge Question, please follow the instructions at the end of this report.)

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

Helpful Links and Special Thanks!
Today's data and observations were generously shared by the many people named in Susan's Field Notes, and by the following organizations:

How to Respond to Today's Gray Whale Challenge Question:

1. Address an e-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #7
3. In the body of the message, give your answer to the question above.

The FINAL Gray Whale Migration Update will Be Posted on May 19, 1999.

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