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Field Notes from Susan Payne
March 8, 2000 Report

Migration data and observations in our gray whale reports are contributed by Susan Payne's network of wonderful observers and organizations. Meet them all:

Hello from the migration trail!

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

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!

The big news this report is that there will be no development of a salt evaporation facility in San Ignacio Lagoon, Mexico by Exportadora de Sal (Essa), a joint venture between the Mexican Commerce Ministry and Japan's Mitsubishi Corp. The "national and world importance and the uniqueness of the Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve" and ecotourism were cited as factors in Mexico's decision to halt the salt works, according to the Associated Press. This ends a five year battle between environmental groups and the Mexican government.

Again on the international front and for those of you following Keiko's release to the wild, Keiko swam out of his pen into the wild off the coast of Iceland on Friday, March 3! For more information see the CNN website.

Northbound migrating whales are off Vancouver Island, British Columbia as of February 26, reported to us by Strawberry Isle Research Society, and they continue past at 2-3 gray whales per hour on Sunday, March 5. Compare this rate to Monterey Bay's 15-18 gray whales in Monterey Bay Whale Watch's three hour charter trips. The American Cetacean Society (ACS) is seeing a slight increase in northbound activity, but still no northbound cow/calf pairs have been counted. Read on for details!

ACS Census
Alisa Schulman-Janiger, coordinator of the ACS census census at Long Point (33.74 N, -118.39 W) reports that through Sunday, March 5 they have counted a total of 258 northbound gray whales but no cow/calf pairs, and 486 southbound grays. The largest count of northbound gray whales was on Saturday, March 4. The windy weather and bad visibility have continued to make sighting difficult. The numbers are up and down, erratic, without any large surges of migrating whales. As of March 4, the 254 northbound grays compared with 246 in 1999; in the last 10 years the range has been 116-551 northbound grays with 1262 in 1984, the first year of the census. The average by March 4 over the last 10 years has been 262 northbound gray whales and 394 northbound grays over the last 16 years. The average peak date of the northbound census in past years has occurred on March 13. The numbers for the last two weeks are:

Stray Baby Gray?

As ACS Census volunteers, Mike and Winston, report that on March 3 a baby gray whale, approximately 15 feet in length, was swimming around the dock in Ventura harbor (34.73N, -119.26 W) without an adult. The whale finally headed back out to sea. They wonder if this was the same baby reported four days earlier in the Los Angeles harbor (33.74 N, -118.28W). Alisa says that a lone calf is unusual, but two years ago they saw 6 lone calves from the census site. This year's calf looked skinny, and they could not tell if it was northbound or southbound.

Mike and Winston hear from surfers that the breath of a gray whale smells terrible! When he asked them how they knew that, they told him that they had been surfing along side a gray whale last week. Mike and Winston also report: February 28: 2-3 fin whales (33.74 N, -118.39 W).

News from Channel Islands and Monterrey Bay
Shauna Bingham, from the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary explains in her report this week that the gray whale migration corridor through the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary ranges from 4-8 miles offshore near the 40-60 fathom contour line. The C/V Condor has been on two whale watching trips everyday. In their reports from February 21- March 1, the gray whales seem to be traveling alone or in pairs; the one exception was a group of four. Shauna says that it is unusual, but no common or bottlenose dolphins have been observed, and only a few California sea lions. Following are the sightings from the C/V Condor and C/V Rachel G where coordinates were given:

Nancy Black of Monterey Bay Whale Watch has returned to Monterey and is reporting a steady stream of northbound gray whales and seven killer whales last Wednesday, March 1. Notice the increase in number of northbound migrants past Monterey in the last two weeks:
March 4: 15-18 northbound gray whales in 3 hour trip (36.67N,-122.00W).
February 26: 10-15 northbound grays in 3 hour trip (36.67N,-122.00W).

Last report, Nancy was on her way north with the new Charter vessel Sea Wolf ll from Cabo San Lucas on the tip of the Baja Peninsula. Near shore at Cabo San Lucas she saw a lot of gray whales "hanging out," including one cow/calf pair. Farther off shore there were humpback whales. On the journey north, she saw pilot whales, bottlenose dolphins, and humpback whales.

Remember the killer whales that Nancy photographed on January 29 in Monterey Bay that had traveled south from the San Juan Islands in Washington? Apparently they were searching for salmon. For more information see story in SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER.

Up the Coast to Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia

Christy Sallee from Marine Discovery Tours in Newport, Oregon and Geoff Grillo, of Advantage Sport Fishing in Westport, Washington, both have no gray whale news because the coast has been too rough for charter trips. Off Newport the seas have been 14-foot swells! Christy has looked from shore, but she has not seen any whales from there either.

Rod Palm, Strawberry Isle Research Society is reporting two-three northbound gray whales per hour as of Sunday, March 5! Here is an excerpt from their newsletter, "Scuttle Butt," about their first sightings and the food of migrating and resident gray whales:

"February 26, the 'no prize' for first local sighting of migrating Grays off Barkley Sound goes to Susan McIntyre who spotted a single adult heading north about one mile off Amphitrite Point. Whale watch boat operator / interpreter Heather Shobe aboard the "Blue Lightning" wins for Clayoquot Sound who, on the 27th, picked up on three whales off Lennard Island We are geographically about half way along this, the longest of all mammal migrations. It is more than 5,000 nautical miles from Mexico to the rich feeding grounds of the Bering Sea. With a cruising speed of about 4.5 Knots, the whales are looking at two and a half months traveling time one way. However, depending on the fancy of the individual animals, there is a great deal of variation in this time frame. While most whales seem undistracted in their migration, others will pause to gulp down coastal clouds of mysid shrimp or graze through fields of herring roe laden algae, still others get so sidetracked by the culinary virtues and ambiance of Clayoquot Sound that they end up staying the whole summer - sounds like some people I know. We also see Grays who hang out all winter in the open ocean with no apparent desire to migrate one way or the other. On our January continental shelf survey we recorded nine Grays in two groups who were just lazing about on the surface seventeen miles offshore. We believe they are too young, too old or simply barren so they have no need to make the long swim to the breeding grounds. Even though these overwintering animals save blubber stored protein by not migrating, they would burn a bit more keeping themselves warm in our cooler waters.

And then there's the little whale who wandered into Grice Bay last April to excavate the mud dwelling critters. This guy/gal is still showing up there to sift through the mud. A concern we have with this whale's homesteading in Grice Bay, is the food stock. Last February we recorded 12 litres of live biomass per cubic metre of substrate. This year, after 324 whale days of predation, there is only half the available biomass left. Another significant observation is that there is only one sixth the number of infant Ghost Shrimp to repopulate the bay. We are hoping that this young whale will decide to join up with the migrating whales and leave Grice Bay alone. The question of course is, "If the whale decides to stay in the bay for another summer, Is there enough foodstuffs propagating there to sustain it?"

We have said a lot about the mud dwelling Ghost Shrimp in past 'Scuttle Butts' but little about the False Mya clam that coexists with the shrimp. These numerous small bivalves average about a centimetre long and, over a year, represent 63% of the live biomass in Grice Bay. We have long wondered if the Grays are profiting from the ingestion of these clams. First, "What is the nutritional value?" We hope to get a grad student interested in carrying out a protein breakdown to find this out. Then, "Is it possible that the clam closes up and passes through the whale's digestive track without opening to expose its meat to the gastric juices?" On a whim, while examining these clams, I scooped up a handful of them and, gulp, 'down the hatch.' The following day I was unable to coerce any of our hard working staff or volunteers to carry out a fecal analysis. It seems even Carla has a limit to her dedication. Anyway, after a very intense rinsing, we were surprised to see that the clams had not only opened but the joining hinges and abductor muscles were entirely dissolved. The shells were as clean as though they were picked up off a beach. "I know, hardly scientific but us naturalists have considerable leeway."

Jamie Bray, of Jamies Whaling Station, in Tofino, British Columbia had their first sighting of gray whales on Sunday, February 27, spotted by Heather Shobe (mentioned in Rod's report), their head rigid hull inflatable skipper. She spotted three large gray whales traveling west up the coast about half a mile offshore; there was nothing unusual in their behavior.

Brian Congdon, of Subtidal Adventures in Ucluelet, British Columbia has been seeing the northbound grays the last week or so.

Are they in Alaska yet?
In Sitka, Jan Straley, a humpback researcher with the University of Alaska, has not seen any gray whales in her near shore surveys or heard of any gray whale sightings off shore. Leslie Hines, of Kenai Fjords Tours in Seward, Alaska, is now on the alert also!

Here in Kodiak, Spring is definitely on its way. With the gray whales now off Vancouver Island, we need to start watching our shores carefully! The sea-ice in front of our house is blowing out with the wind and with some help of some anxious residents with aluminum skiffs.

Sunrise on March 8 is 0740 and sunset is 1902.

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