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FINAL Gray Whale Migration Update: May 19, 1999

Today's Report Includes:

Special Thanks

Susan Payne with son Will Ross H. Dumm

As the gray whale migration season draws to a close, we'd like to say a special thank you to Susan Payne and all of her contacts. Our gray whale reports simply would not have been possible without the expertise and dedication they shared from up and down the entire migration route.

Latest News From the Gray Whale Observation Posts

Pushing North Despite an Icy Grip
The northernmost gray whales have now reached Goodnews Bay (58.83N, -161.67W) and Security Cove (58.67N, -161.85W), where 3 gray whales were sighted on May 17. An estimated 1,500 gray whales were also reported between Kulukak Point (58.86N,-159.67W) and the south end of Hagemeister Island (58.63N,-161.00W). But late ice in the Bering Sea still has a grip on their migration.

Principal Just Misses Orca Attack!
False Pass School is seeing a lot of gray whales now, plus there was an Orca attack just off False Pass dock! Read the news below from Principal John Concilius who heard about the attack, and rushed to the scene.

Meanwhile in the south, the ACS census near Los Angeles (33.44N,-118.24W) has finished up with the lowest northbound cow/calf count since the 1990/91 season!

The Highlights of Susan's report are provided below:

Northbound Sightings
The ACS census at Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula (33.44N,-118.24W) concluded on May 15. Alisa Schulman-Janiger reports that the total northbound count was 1,363 gray whales, including 34 cow/calf pairs or 2.5 % of the total; the total southbound count was 682 whales, including 15 cow/calf pairs.

Lowest Count In Years
This year's northbound cow/calf pair count is the lowest since the 1990/91 season, and they are still hoping that it is a late migration this year. The highest weekly cow/calf pair count of the year, nine, compares to 50 last year. The monthly break down of cow/calf pairs was also unusual this year: 12 cow/calf pairs in March; 9 in April; and 13 in May. A friend of Alisa's told her that the calf count in San Ignacio is also the lowest in 10 years. For more information, check out the:

I have not received recent news from Wayne Perryman of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, who has conducted a cow/calf census from Point Piedras Blancas (35.67N,-121.28W) in San Luis Obispo County since 1994. However, Nancy Black from Monterey Bay Whale Watch reported that Wayne Perryman's group has seen 70 cow/calf pairs so far this year compared to 300-400 last year.

An "Upwelling" Experience
In Monterey (36.67N,-122.00W), Nancy Black reports that they have still not seen any cow/calf pairs yet this year. The grays are still feeding on krill, and two gray whales stayed about three weeks in the area, and were repeatedly identified by Nancy. Because of all the storms and wave action this year, the upwelling has created perfect conditions for the abundant krill. Also unusual this year, the krill are earlier than other years, and are on the surface of the ocean.

Further north on Vancouver Island, Rod Palm in Tofino (49.10N,-125.93W) was out when I tried to contact him, but few whales are apparently going by there right now.

In Seward (59.53N,-149.23W), Leslie Hines of Kenai Fjords Tours, reports that they seem to be seeing fewer whales at this time than other years. She wonders if they are traveling offshore, but she admits the weather has been partly to blame for fewer sightings.

Here in Kodiak, now that Whale Fest is over we are fortunate that the M/V Ten Bears is out and about, and contributing to our reports. We do not have a constant presence at Narrow Cape, the best place to get an accurate idea of what is going on, but have a few sightings of 1 to 6 gray whales in other areas.

False Pass Orca Attack!
Buck Laukitis has been traveling in his boat from Kodiak to False Pass in the last two weeks, and he reports seeing no gray whales in Shelikof Strait (58.00N,-154.00W) or at Chignik (56.30N,-158.38W). However, he did report seeing five orcas "mauling" a gray whale right next to the False Pass dock (54.85N,-163.40W) on May 13! Buck and eleven others watched as the orcas were trying to keep the whale down, but they did not see how the struggle ended as the whale group drifted north with the tide. The orcas were all females or immatures on the small side, and they had dull gray patches on their sides making them look almost black.

At False Pass School, Principal John Concilius tried to get some photos of the orca attack that Buck Laukitus reported, but by the time he arrived they had gone. He reports that the gray whale was small, possibly a young whale. With only three days to go, John reports a lot of gray whales in the pass last week, and large numbers the last few days. Maybe now you can see some gray whales from the live weather camera on Isanotski Strait:

Only As Far As the Ice Allows
Up to 1,500 gray whales are being seen between Kulukak Point (58.86N,-159.67W) to the south end of Hagemeister Island (58.63N,-161.00W) , with increased seal and sea lion activity. Water temperatures are coming up, as of Sunday, three to four degrees celsius; shorefast ice was reported last on May 15.

In Bethel, Alaska, Charles Burkey, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game flies aerial herring surveys and reports that on May 16, he saw no whales, no herring, and only one sea lion between Security Cove (58.67N,-161.85W) on the southeast shore of Kuskokwim Bay, and Goodnews Bay (59.83N,-161.67W). But on the 17th he reported seeing 3 gray whales in this area. Ice coverage there was about thirty percent.

Up in Gambel (63.83N,-146.68W) on St. Lawrence Island, they have not seen any gray whales there yet, and only a few bowhead whales, according to Larry Dickerson, a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Larry says the gray whales are there usually in June. There is still a lot of ice there. The walrus hunters are having to haul their 18 foot aluminum skiffs five miles over ice to reach open water.

"Late Breaking" News
In Nome (64.50 N, -165.40 W), Charles Lean of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that they are having a late breakup, and that the ice is still thick. This ice situation in Nome was last seen in 1992, and before that in 1985 and 1975. Charles has heard of open water towards Teller, Alaska on the Seward Peninsula (65.27N,-166.35W), and says that the Russian side of the Bering Sea has more open water.
  • Click Here for a picture of the latest ice situation

Attention Turns to Land
By the time the gray whales finally reach as far north as Point Hope, Alaska (68.33N,-166.67W):

"the ice is gone and the gray whales come and go here without much notice", says Sheila Gaquin at the Point Hope School. "The whales pass by offshore some distance, and by that time the village has turned its attention from the sea to the land (caribou), and river (fish). People do not go on the ocean here when there is no ice."

Migration Nears an End, But the Issues Don't
As this season's gray whale migration nears an end, here are some of the current newsworthy issues and events that possibly could impact the gray whales along their long migration route. For more information you might want to look on the internet, or keep your ears open for news on these subjects. I will not provide too much detail, but you will likely hear more.
  • Mitsubishi Corporation would like to build a salt evaporation facility in San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja, located in the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve. They are currently operating a similar saltworks in Ojo de Liebre Lagoon. How might this new facility impact this mating and calving ground for the whales?
  • The Makah nation of Washington state has received permission to take up to 20 gray whales in the next 5 years, not to exceed 5 whales per year. On May 10, they activated their 10-day whaling permit, and announced the beginning of their hunt. They successfully landed their first gray whale on Monday, May 17 at 0655. For more information, read this Seattle Times article on the Makah Hunt.
  • Oil spills such as the recent spill off Oregon this spring.
  • Everyday human impacts of noise and vessel activity.

Parting Thoughts and Season Summary From Kodiak

Susan Payne with son Will Ross H. Dumm

I am sorry to say that this is my last gray whale report of 1999, but we are all beginning to look ahead to the year 2000 northbound migration! I am hopeful that we have provided you with some interesting information this year as it has been an interesting northbound migration. A few of the highlights have been:
  • Stormy conditions along the entire migration route making whale watching difficult this year;
  • Surface feeding gray whales on large schools of krill in California from Los Angeles to Monterey;
  • Except for higher than ususal numbers in March off Los Angeles, to date there have been fewer northbound cow/calf pairs;
  • A population estimate of 26,635 gray whales by the National Marine Mammal Laboratory;
  • Thicker ice and a later break up of ice in the Bering Sea.

The timing of the "firsts" seemed to be similar to last year except for their arrival in Togiak which was delayed because of the ice. We have been very fortunate to have made contacts along the migration route with people dedicated to observing and understanding the gray whales, and I want to thank them for their repeated information these months.

Discussion of Challenge Question #7
We had some very good responses for the definition of fecundity including this one:

"Fecundity means the condition or degree of being fertile (able to
reproduce)." Danielle, Stephanie & Kate, gr. 5., Scott Young PS

In the Dictionary of Biology (Abercrombie, M. et al., 1980) the definition is short: the reproductive output, usually of an individual; number of offspring produced. In Webster's Third New International Dictionary, the definition includes: the quality or the power of producing offspring especially in abundance or the quality that conduces this; the potential reproductive capacity.

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

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

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This is the FINAL Gray Whale Migration Update. Have a Great Summer!

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