Field Notes from Susan Payne
Hello from the migration trail!
My name is Susan Payne, and I work as a biologist at National Marine Fisheries Service, Kodiak Laboratory in Kodiak, Alaska. This will be my third year of coordinating the Journey North gray whale network of volunteers, professional whale researchers, charter operators, fishermen, and others-from Los Angeles, California, to Point Hope, Alaska. We are trying to give you an idea of the timing of the northbound gray whale migration as the whales move up the eastern Pacific. Along with the timing of the migration, we will give you gray whale information from experts in the field and other marine mammal sightings!
My Whale Watching Trip in December
On December 21, 1999, I took my first whale-watch trip with Nancy Black from Monterey Bay Whale Watch (link here) and captain Richard Ternullo on the Pt. Sur Clipper. We were not disappointed; we saw an estimated 1000 common dolphins before we left Monterey Bay and a single gray whale heading south in our 3-hour cruise. In Santa Barbara, on the same trip, I also stopped into the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary (link here) offices to visit Education Coordinator, Julie Goodson and Whale Corp coordinator, Shauna Bingham. They talked about the Sanctuary and the new Management Plan being written for the Sanctuary taking into consideration a lot of public testimony. Take a look on their website for the issues being raised. The krill (Euphausiids), the food of some whale species, were incredibly thick while we were there, but we did not get to see them ourselves. Want to see a nice picture of Shauna and a jar of krill and read about some unusual summer sightings at NOAA's Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary? The gray whale carcass mentioned in the story was seen and photographed as it was being eaten by a great white shark. (You can contact the Sanctuary to see these incredible photographs!)
More Whales Staying in Kodiak
Since our last report in May of 1999, Kodiak has had some unusual sightings of gray whales. Instead of heading further north into the Bering Sea, many gray whales stayed in the Narrow Cape, outer Ugak Bay (57.45N, -152.73W) area on the East side of Kodiak, during the summer and fall of 1999. Whales that stay in an area instead of migrating further during the summer or winter are called seasonal residents.
Jeff Allen of the F/V Chiniak has fished this area since 1970. From May 15 through October, Jeff said at least 50 gray whales stayed in the area; in previous years he would see only one or two. Jeff noted that the whales' feeding strategy and habitat utilization was also different. In previous years, they bottom fed in the shallow waters of Pashagshak Bay, Boulder Bay, and a place near Gull Point in 2-3 fathoms. This year they were in 3-50 fathoms of water in outer Ugak Bay, making short dives of several minutes. Kate Wynne, from the University of Alaska's Marine Advisory Program, saw 40-50 whales between Ugak Bay and Gull Point, and 10 in Ugak bay all summer and fall. Kate could see their mud plumes as they were feeding on the bottom as she made her aerial census surveys for Stellar sealions.
James Browning for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dillingham has also noted that the gray whales stayed longer in his herring survey area in the area of Togiak Bay (58.88N, -160.32W) in 1999. In James' last five years of herring surveys, the whales generally are gone by May 1. Last year they stayed throughout the herring fishery-which was delayed beyond May 27, 1999 because of ice.
Why the Highest Number of Stranding in 25 Years?
Last Spring we reported some of many gray whales strandings all along the migration route. The number of strandings from the beginning of 1999 through the end of September was 144 gray whales in the United States and 269 between Mexico, the U.S, and Canada. For the U.S. this is the highest number of strandings in 25 years. The average number of strandings for 1990-1998 was 30 animals per year. Scientists are speculating that food limitations in theBering Sea during the summers of the 1997/1998 El Nino Southern Oscillation, with the warm sea surface temperatures, may be a contributing to the increase in number of these "unusual" stranding events (MMPA Bulletin, 3rd Quarter 1999, Issue No. 16. As I hear more about the necropsies of stranded animals, I will keep you posted.
The large number of unusual sightings and strandings of gray whales may be related to the current population estimate of gray whales (26,600 in 1999, which may be approaching the historical population size of gray whales), and the change in availability of food in the usual feeding grounds of the gray whales in the Bering Sea. We can explore this in the coming months as well.
Another Later Migration
Again this winter off Kodiak Island in the Narrow Cape area (57.45N, -152.73W), the southbound migration is occurring later. It seems to be characterized by distinct pulses of whales. Kate Wynne saw hundreds of gray whales on January 3, 2000 between Kiliuda and Ugak bays, incidental to her aerial survey. While on the annual Audubon bird survey on January 1, 2000, Richard MacIntosh counted 147 spouts at one time on a 180 degree scan of the Narrow Cape area. Out to five miles, there were not that many gray whales, but at about 5 miles and further the densities were great. Last year on December 27, 1999, Rich saw the same kind of gray whale show. Pete Cummiskey reported no whales on December 24, 1999. On December 23, Eric Munk counted 47 blows in 90 degree arc from Gull Point to directly south of Narrow Cape; these whales were traveling in small groups from nearshore to an estimated 10 miles. My latest report of gray whales at the mouth of Ugak Bay is from Bob Otto on January 22, 2000. He reported 4-8 bushy v-shaped blows at any one time.
Dave Rugh, from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory predicted a median date of December 18, 1999 for the southbound migration past Narrow Cape in Kodiak. In a summary of "Timing of the Southbound migration of gray whales" he said this prediction assumes a travel speed for gray whales of 144 km/day and an estimated arrival at Granite Canyon of January 15, 2000 based on historical census data. The Granite Canyon survey is not being done this year. It is interesting to compare this expected peak date with our actual observations this year. Our observations, which do not constitute a formal census, do not include any sightings on December 18, but many whales were sighted between December 23-January 22. Wayne Perryman of the Southwest Fisheries Research Center in San Diego, will do a survey of northbound cows with calves starting on March 13.
Whale Counts From The American Cetacean Society (ACS) Census
The ACS census has moved from Point Vicente about a mile north to Long Point (33.74N,-118.39W) because of lead contamination in the soil. The census started at Long Point in the mid-1980s where Marineland of the Pacific once stood. Project Coordinator Alisa Janiger-Schulman explained to me that the Long Point location is actually better for the census of northbound whales. It offers a better view to the south-best for watching for southbound whales coming from the north. This year's census began December 1, 1999 and the first northbound gray whale of the season breached into the census area on December 2. As of February 7, they have had 21 total northbound whales, counting 1-2 northbound gray whales a day.
The southbound migration is still underway. The total count is 387 southbound whales, including 18 cow/calf pairs! This count of cow/calf pairs is higher than last year's to date. This season they are seeing a lot of Risso's dolphins, and last week they saw some northern right whale dolphins; both eat squid which has been abundant this year. They are also seeing common and bottlenose dolphins. Alisa helped identify the orcas that Nancy Black spotted and reports several sightings of orcas in the southern California area. See details reported in our table.
Sightings in the Los Angeles Area
Michael Hawe and Winston continue to keep me posted of unusual sightings in the Los Angeles area. Michael is a volunteer with the ACS census. On Sunday, December 12, 1999, a pod of 60-70 orcas were seen off the Dana Point (33.46N,-117.71W) breakwater 40 miles south of the census area. On December 30, 2000 the census volunteers saw a cow/calf pair being harassed by about 12 Risso's dolphins. Michael reports: "The dolphins managed to separate the mother from the baby. Once the mother had her baby back, the mother rolled on her back and placed her baby on her belly, then she started to flap her pectoral flippers and fluke up and down on the water; the Risso's soon got the message." On the weekend of December 22, 1999, a friend of Michael's visiting Scammon's Lagoon in Baja, Mexico, saw about 40 gray whales including 12 cow/calf pairs in a two hour boat ride.
No Northbound Gray Whales Yet at Channel Islands Or Monterey Bay
Our reports from the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary will be summarized by Shauna Bingham. The sighting data will come from Sanctuary vessels and several charter vessels whose captains were trained by the naturalist program to record marine mammal sightings. On Wednesday, February 2, Shauna called to say that they have not seen any northbound gray whales yet, and that the southbound migration is still underway. Shauna's sightings in the table are a quick summary of January's sighting since she has been involved with the search and recovery of the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crash in Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary waters. Shauna was unable to give us Latitude/Longitude of the sightings. On February 1, Shauna spent the day assisting the United States Coast Guard in their search. The Sanctuary is also assisting with oceanographic information such as bottom bathymetry, current and wind patterns of the area. Despite all the vessel activity, Shauna saw about 200 common dolphins swim through the search area on February 1.
Nancy Black from Monterey Bay Whale Watch has not sighted any Northbound whales yet. In fact, Nancy says that the southbound migration is still going strong! This is somewhat unusual for this time of year. On Feb 6, they counted 30 gray whales in their 3- hour trip 36.67N,-122.00W). The sightings the last couple of weeks have consistently been 20-30 gray whales in 3 hours. On January 29, they had an exciting sighting of 65 orcas, K and L pods from Washington and British Columbia. These were resident whales (meaning they are primarily fish eaters), and they had never been seen further south than Washington state before. You can see photos of these killer whales; look for the distinctive saddle patches on their backs and dorsal fins, which aid in their identification.
Oregon and Washington Sightings
Whale Watch Spoken Here has some interesting southbound data from their Winter census. December 26, 1999 through January 2, 2000 they counted 1,343 gray whales from 30 locations along the Oregon coast and saw 11,015 visitors. See the table to compare this year's volunteer sightings with past data since 1987. Their northbound census week will be March 18-March 25, 2000. We will let you know when that data is in!
Geoff Grillo of Advantage Sport Fishing in Westport, Washington tells me that he has been out on the ocean a lot this past month crabbing for dungeness crab. He has seen individual whales traveling both north and south, and gray whales continue to stay in Grays Harbor continuously.
Rod Palm of Strawberry Isle Research Society (link here) and Jamie Bray of Jamie's Whaling Station report seeing a yearling gray whale in Clayoquot Sound and four to six gray whales just offshore of Tofino (49.10N,-125.93W). These whales have been seen most of the winter. Rod expects to see the first migrating northbound whales in a week or so.
Signing Off From Kodiak
The Kodiak winter is also quite cold this year and we are all looking forward to the spring! Ground Hogs Day 2000, February 2, was a very gray, stormy day with hurricane force winds from the south/ southeast. No shadow was seen here in Kodiak. Longer days are ahead. February 7 sunrise is 0851; sunset is 1758. I'll be back in two weeks with another report!
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