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Field Notes from Susan Payne
April 19, 2000

Here They Come!
The last two weeks have been very exciting for migration news! The American Cetacean Society spotted their first cow/calf pair on 4 April and again on 5 April. Positive sightings of a calf were made on 13 April in Seward and in Kodiak on 10 April! It appears that the largest numbers of gray whales are being seen off Kodiak and the first gray whales showed up in Nelson Lagoon on 8 April. You're invited to check out the school's video cam to see the whale action live in the sea! The humpback whales are also showing up all along the coast.

Notice to Mariners
In an effort to monitor whale calls, specifically looking for northern right whales, the Pacific Marine Environmental Lab (PMEL) and the National Marine Mammal Lab will deploy two autonomous hydrophones in Kodiak waters. They will be set on Albatross Bank at approximately (57 07.0N, 151 51.5W) and tethered 400 fathoms below the surface in 1025 fathoms of water at (56 40.0N, 151 00.0W). For hydrophone deployment and acoustic information, see the very interesting PMEL Whale Acoustics Project page.

Traditional Makah Whale Hunt Underway
In Neah Bay, Washington (48.37N, 124.60W), the Makah Tribe will resume their gray whale hunts this week, a tradition that was guaranteed under a 1855 treaty with the United States Government and that restarted in 1999 with approval by the International Whaling Commission. The Makahs received a 10-day permit on Monday, April 17 to start this yearís hunt. The Makahs are allowed a take of 5 whales again this year. Four or five families are planning to take part in the hunt with their traditional cedar canoes.

Killer Whales on the Migration Trail
This year we have not heard of any killer whale predation events, but killer whales are a threat to the migrating cow/calf pairs all along the migration route. In our reports from other years we have heard of a killer whale attack off Seward in 1998 and in False Pass (54.85N, 163.41W) in 1999. You may recall Wayne Perryman saying that he has only seen one attack in his six years of monitoring the cow/calf pair northbound migration. According to Buck Laukitus in False Pass, the False Pass is a good location for potentially seeing a killer whale attack on gray whale calves because it is such a narrow passage to the Bering Sea.

In an KVOK radio interview with Nancy Black of Monterey Bay Whale Watch for 1999 Whale Fest Kodiak, we had a chance to learn about killer whale predation on gray whales. Nancy Black has been studying this interaction in connection with the National Geographic Society. The killer whales tend to predate on cow/calf pairs specifically targeting the calves. In Monterey, this occurs from mid-April to mid-May as the majority of the mothers and calves are passing across the Monterey canyon. These attacks are rare, but when they do occur the killer whales will chase the grays, trying to surround and separate the calf from the cow. In the chase, the gray whales may attain a speed of 10 knots as they try to escape the attack. If grays can reach the near shore, they will hide in the kelp line. The fight may take 6 or 7 hours. The orcas will grab onto the pectoral fins or get on top of the gray whale calf; if they are successful, the calf will drown. During an attack, the mother will beat the water with her flukes, try to keep the calf next to her, or roll belly up with the calf on top of her. However, she must eventually rollover to take a breath. If an attack is successful, the orcas will often just take the tongues, although sometimes they will eat the blubber or the whole whale.

Sad News: Strandings
Along with the cows and calves on their way north, we are starting to hear about strandings up and down the coast. Mike and Winston also keep me posted on the strandings along the coast.

  • On April 10, the San Francisco Chronicle reported four strandings. Dead whales were found in San Francisco Bay at Point Richmond (37.92N, 122.38W), Coyote Point (37.58N, 122.32W) and at Lands End in San Francisco. A whale found alive but stranded off Santa Cruz (34.58N, 119.92W) also died. All the whale carcasses except one were towed out to sea. All were young adults ranging from 25-35 feet long and weighing 20 tons each.
  • In Oregon, the Oregonian reported that a 41-foot gray whale washed ashore in Waldport (44.42N, 124.06W) on Tuesday, April 4. The cause of death of the 30-ton adult male is being investigated. The whale suffered no visible wounds and died at least two miles offshore, according to Barbara Lagerquist, a research assistant with the marine mammal program at the Oregon State Universityís Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.
  • On Friday, April 14, a 30-foot gray whale was discovered washed ashore in Bellingham Bay, Washington (48.73N, 122.55W).
  • According to Jorge Urban, a gray whale researcher in Baja, there have been many whale deaths in the lagoons again this year.
  • John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research reported their first gray whale stranding in Washington this past week. He conducted the examination of the whale on April 11. It was a 39-foot adult male that was first reported floating two weeks ago and finally came ashore on Whidbey Island at Langley (48.03N, 122.45W). The disposal is still pending and an exam will be done at that time.
  • According to the Snohomish News, 3 gray whales washed ashore in Puget Sound last year.
  • Another stranding occurred on April 14 near Shelton, Washington (47.22N, 123.10W). The gray whale came ashore alive, but soon died. Because the whale looked very emaciated, John Calambokidis figures that the death was due to malnutrition.

According to John Calambokidis, of Cascadia Research, killer whale attacks can be the cause for live strandings of gray whales. A gray whale will attempt to avoid the orcas by getting too close to the shore. The distinctive teeth marks on the body, pectoral fins, and flukes tell experts if orcas are the cause of the strandings.

John and his colleagues respond to as many whale strandings as possible in the Washington State area. Ship strikes, entanglement, or a whale's poor nutritional condition can be other causes of strandings. John Calambokidis and colleagues found that the number of strandings in Washington peaks in April, May, and June. The large number of strandings in 1999 in Washington State was double the number of strandings in the years between 1977-1999, according to Calambokidis in his lecture during Whale Fest Kodiak. The National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle is compiling a report on all reported strandings from the entire migration route, and they are hoping to have a report by the end of the month.

ACS Census: No Southbound and Few Northbound
ACS volunteers Mike and Winston report the first northbound cow/ calf pair on Tuesday, April 4 and again on April 5. As of Sunday, April 16, they have counted a total of 946 northbound gray whales with five cow/calf pairs. Their daily counts are way down, averaging from one to eleven northbound grays a day. They have not had a southbound gray since April 7.

California, Oregon, Washington: Fewer Migrants Being Seen
Nancy Black of Monterey Bay Whale Watch is now seeing about 1-2 gray whales per three hour trip as of Monday, April 17. Last week they were seeing 2-5 grays in their three-hour trips (36.67N, 122.00W). On Saturday, April 15, they saw one mother/calf pair. A juvenile, about 25-30 feet in length was feeding in the kelp on Sunday, April 16; it looked like it was emaciated, with a back that appeared sunken. Their whale watch trips are now mainly focusing on humpback whales.

Marine Discovery Tours in Newport, Oregon (44.61N, 124.08W) reports on average 3-4 gray whales an hour. Their peak has definitely passed, and they are now seeing more feeding behavior. On April 16, there were 12 grays feeding at Yaquina Head (44.67N, 124.06W).

Mike Rivers, coordinator of the Whale Watch Spoken Here, summarizes this year's program (please see his web site for relative location), "Twenty-four of the twenty-nine (82%) of the whale watch sites used this week (March 18 to 25) have returned their data to me, and the pattern of more whales observed, but fewer people contacted, than last spring, is apparent. For our 24 sites reporting, we had 1,500 whales observed. The volunteers contacted 10,897 people. For the same sites last year we observed 1,173 whales and contacted 13,148 people. This is approximately 27% more whale observations, and 18% fewer people contacted. Last spring's (1999) weather was very wintry and it was difficult to see anything at the sites. This spring's weather improved mid week and there were fabulous reports of up to 80 whales counted during the three-hour stretch at one site, Ecola State Park (45.92N, 123.97W). Forty-eight would be the expected high at 16 animals migrating per hour, in a three-hour period, which is the peak number expected during this first "pulse" of migration. The number of visitors decreased this spring in spite of good weather and whale watching is probably due, at least in part, to the highly publicized slide on the coast highway 101. While it was open 7 of the eight whale watch days from noon until 8 pm, it discouraged many visitors to the coast, especially those looking for our volunteers who are on site from 10 am until 1 pm. The site adjacent to the slide, near Sea Lion Caves, was unavailable during the week due to traffic management and road repair logistics. This is probably the same reason we saw fewer visitors during our recent winter whale watch week. A short detour around another major slide north of Newport was open both watch weeks, but was posted at 25 mph discouraging some travelers."

Vancouver Island: Still Waiting For Cows and Calves
Rod Palm, of Strawberry Isle Research Society, in Tofino, British Columbia reports, "We're having a mild spring here on the west coast of Vancouver Island. A lot of very fine weather days that have allowed the Whale Watching fleet to spend a lot of time out in the open ocean. As is usual for this time of year, on one trip you can go out and immediately see 30-plus whales on the horizon; then on the next, you can spend two hours and only find perhaps two. This is our peak time for numbers of migrating whales traveling by with an average of perhaps 20 Grays passing per hour. No Cow/calf sightings; we don't expect them for another month or so.

An interesting presence here is the visitations we are having from humpback whales. These animals normally spend there winters in Hawaii then head straight for Alaskan waters in the spring. They don't normally follow the shore like the coastal navigating Gray Whales. We have seen as many as 6 Humpies at one location, apparently feeding. By the time our next report rolls around, we should be able to tell you what they are eating."

Migrants Cruising Past BC
Jamie Bray, of Jamies Whaling Station, in Tofino, British Columbia says that the migration is cruising along as usual past Tofino. He writes: "Skippers report this week that the average size of the animals is smaller these days, possibly indicating the adolescents are bringing up the rear of the main male and adolescent migration and that now begins the calf and cow season. We have had several Gray Whales in the inlets, as is usual for this time of year. They will generally stay for a few hours to a few days. We have had two feeding in front of our house in the inlet for the last month! We are hoping that they will stay and be a part of our "Summer Residents." We have also had some excellent sightings of Humpback Whales in the last few weeks. This is the first time Humpbacks have been sighted so close to shore this early in the year. Normally we see Humpbacks in July and August. We have also had two reports from our Hot Springs skippers of a herd of thirty or more SEA Otters! Totally unheard of here before."

Hiding the Calves?
Brian Congdon, of Subtidal Adventures in Ucluelet, British Columbia (48.50 N, -125.30W) sat on the beach Saturday, April 15 and counted 10 gray whales in an hour. He says the migrants are winding down there. In the last three weeks 15 gray whales were bottom-feeding mostly near Forbes Island (48.95N, 125.42W). Half of those whales were gone by Saturday, April 8. Brian has not seen any cow/calf pairs, but he only sees one or two in a season. He speculates that they may hide the calf when a boat approaches or the cow/calves travel further offshore.

Exciting Whale News From Alaska
Leslie Hines, of Kenai Fjords Tours in Seward, Alaska (60.05N, 149.43W), has BIG NEWS! On Thursday, April 13, they had their first sighting of a gray whale calf at Cape Resurrection (59.54N, 149.29W). It was spotted by K-Beach Elementary School aboard the Marine Science Explorer Program. The sighting was from the M/V Fjordland and confirmed by Captain Bob Willard and naturalist Nancy Willard. On April 10 they also had an unconfirmed calf sighting along with 6-8 other gray whales. On April 11, near Rugged Island (59.86N, 149.39W), they again saw 6 gray whales and some were breaching; 10 or more were in the distance. On April 14, they spotted one humpback whale, but no grays near Rugged Island (59.86N, 149.39W).

Jan Straley, a humpback researcher with the University of Alaska, saw a feeding gray whale near Sitka (57.05 N, 135.33 W) on April 3, perhaps the same whale mentioned in her last report on March 12.

In Kodiak, Kate Wynne, Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program's Marine Mammal specialist, reports two gray whales off Twoheaded Island (56.90N,153.31W) on the west side of Kodiak on April 6. Kate also counted eight traveling gray whales and one feeding from Ugak Island to Gull Point (57.45N, 152.73W). On the West side of Kodiak, in Uyak Bay (57.61N, 153.92W) that day, six fin whales were reported to be feeding for an hour between 1000-1100 by an unknown contributor to the Whale Alerts. Narrow Cape (57.43N, 152.34W) is an exciting place to be now for gray whales. On April 8, Shelley Lawson reports 20 grays in an hour at Narrow Cape. At Cape Chiniak (57.62N, 152.17W) looking towards Narrow Cape, Sara Persselin and Adam Watson counted 20 grays in 30 minutes. Three gray whales (likely) were swinging inside Chiniak Bay (57.72N, 152.37W) and were spotted at Miller Point (57.83N, 152.35W). That same day, six minke whales and approximately three gray whales were seen on the northeast side of Long Island (57.46N, 152.26W) by Lorrie and Rob on the S/V Kirsten Anne.

On April 10, Patrick Saltonstall saw 15-30 in an hour at Narrow Cape (57.43N, 152.34W) including what he thought was a cow/calf pair, our first cow/calf pair sighting in Kodiak! Deedee Pearson reports that her husband saw fin whales in Kupreonof near Whale Pass (57.92N, 152.82W) on April 11. Four killer whales made another appearance in the Kodiak channel (57.46N, 152.40W) on April 12. The Whale Alert for Friday, April 14 was approximately 100 grays in an hour, in groups of 10-12, at Narrow Cape.

On Saturday, April 15, Eric Stirrup, on the F/V Tenbears, saw "lots of blows following the coast north and southwest of Cape Chiniak (57.62N, 152.17W). Observed blows further offshore as well. Didn't get a good count (estimates 7-25) as driving, spotting, and showing our crowd our migratory visitors. The day was flat calm and just a rippled surface so we got to see their coloration and barnacled backs very well. The three humpbacks were just doing humpie things feeding in a good rip about mid cape. Can't remember the last time I saw three humpbacks this early; many years anyway. Some of the grays may have been feeding as well since there appeared to be lots of feed in the water column and about a dozen were milling around and showing lots of flukes, rather than just swimming along as the majority were." On April 16, the Tenbears did not have the best viewing day as it was cold and gray which makes sightings difficult. They did encounter a total of seven grays out at Cape Chiniak in the afternoon. They did not see any grays on the morning trip. They saw other blows in the afternoon further offshore, "but it was starting to kick up about SE20, and with the tide ebbing against that it was a bit rough to go play much beyond the tip. One pair of whales this afternoon looked like an adult with a somewhat smaller whale close alongside. Definitely bigger than a newborn, maybe a second year as I would estimate its length in the low thirty foot length while the adults were more like the high forties although some of the whales yesterday were closer in length to the Ten Bears at 50' and quite plump. The whales today were also very wary." Eric reports that because they had a few young children along and they opted to stay inshore. They did encounter one minke and one very active humpback surface feeding over by Spruce Island off Monks Lagoon, pectoral slapping, tail slapping and several half hearted side breaches. There was alot of feed on the surface, and kittiwakes, murres, and cormorants were enjoying the leftovers.

In Monashka bay (57.83N, 152.35W), Claire Armistead and Dr. Donald Schell spotted a humpback during breakfast.

Nelson Lagoon School Invites You to Watch the Whales!
The first gray whales reported on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula, were reported by John Concilus, the principal of the Nelson Lagoon School located on the north side of the Alaska Peninsula (55.92N, 161.35 W). He writes that the earliest sighting by village residents was on April 8 and, as of April 12 there were groups of whales off the beaches. They promise video of the event on their web site! Check it out!

Ice Watch in the Bering Sea
James Browning of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dillingham, Alaska will start their aerial herring surveys of Togiak (58.88N, 160.38W) on the north side of Bristol Bay on April 18th, weather permitting. In 1996, 1997, and 1998, they had seen gray whales in their surveys; their first sightings were ten days later last year, 1999.

According to Charles Burkey Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Bethel, Alaska, most of Bristol Bay, south of Cape Newenham is pretty much ice-free. There is some open water along the coast in southern Kuskokwim Bay (59.67N, 162.33W). Check out the ice maps of the Bering Sea. Charles will start aerial surveys for herring of southern Kuskokwim Bay about the first week of May.

Whale Hunts Coming
Sheila Gaquin, a school teacher in Point Hope (68.33 N, 166.75W), reports that she flew along the coast from Kotzebue to Point Hope on Sunday, April 9th, and there was no open water. Sheila says that a strong wind could open a lead at any time. "The whaling crews are prepared to hunt the bowhead whales when they appear. The skins have been sewn on the boats, the tents, grub boxes and whaling equipment are ready, and now everyone is waiting on the wind and water currents to open the leads."

Celebrating Whale Fest in Kodiak
The Whale Fest Audubon whale watch walk on Sunday, April 16 at Narrow Cape (57.43N, 152.34W) was well attended, and everyone was treated to a presentation by the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge naturalist, Melonie Shipman. Also present was John Calambokidis, of Cascadia Research, who had spoken about his work with blue whales and seasonal-resident gray whales in Washington State at the Whale Fest Kodiak festivities on Saturday, April 15. I learned a lot from his presentations that I hope to apply to these reports!

Whales Everywhere! The best count I can give you from that day is that there were whales everywhere, traveling back and forth in the Ugak Island Passage below the cliffs where we were standing. Sometimes groups of three and four appeared to be interacting with each other, as we would see pectoral fins appear out of the water. Some people reported seeing breaching whales. Upon our arrival before Narrow Cape, John spotted a possible killer whale fairly far away from shore; it was not spotted again.

In Kodiak, our fourth annual Whale Fest Kodiak, continues this week through April 23. We look forward to these events:

  • Lectures: Comparing the two cultures, Yupíik and Alutiiq, by Mr. John Active; and the History of Whaling on the Kodiak Archipelago by Michelle Bayes of the Baranov Museum and Patrick Saltonstall.from the Alutiiq Museum.
  • A remote radio show with Dr. James Darling of the West Coast Whale Foundation on KVOK radio. This will reach the remote villages of Kodiak Island.
  • Public television KMXT will show the Ocean Futures Society documentary, Keiko, Born to be Wild.
  • The Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge will join the Alutiiq Museum for the Families Understanding Nature Program, and show movies and conduct activites at the Refuge.
  • The Public library will feature whales during their Storytime and Small Hands Art activity.

So much more fun and I have not mentioned all the exhibits in the museums and childrenís art everywhere!

Last Words
Saturday, April 15 was the most beautiful day of our spring so far which was unfortunate for the Whale Fest activities because they were inside for the most part, but no less wonderful to see and feel for everyone. The pussy willows are out! I have not been home to look for bear tracks on the mountains, but bears are definitely being seen in town now.

Compare your daylight to ours in Kodiak; sunrise on April 19 is 0547 and sunset is 2032.

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