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Field Notes from Susan Payne

Hello from the migration trail!

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

Whales In the News
In Neah Bay, Washington (48.37N, 124.60W), the Makah Tribe again resumed their gray whale hunt on Saturday, May 6. We wrote about this in previous reports if you want to look for details!

Observations Along the Migration Route
The last report I have from Wayne Perryman of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center from the census at Point Piedras Blancas in San Luis Obispo County (35.67N, 121.28W), came in on May 2. At that time they had counted 75 calves, which Wayne said was higher than in 1999 (53 calves) but half the number of all other years. He said that some of the whales do look thin, but others look just fine.

The ACS census at Long Point (33.74 N, -118.39 W) ended on March 15. I am sure the volunteers are very relieved as they started on December 1. On May 1, Alisa Schulman-Janiger, coordinator of the ACS census, said it had been a frustrating season for sighting whales due to low visibility off and on throughout the season. As of May 14 the northbound total was 1039 gray whales, including 19 cow/calf pairs. Since May 10 they have only been seeing 0-1 northbound whales a day, down from the 1-6 northbound grays per day with 0-1 calves a day. The census appears to be winding down. Unless there were a fantastic number of cow/calf pairs on May 15, this count is considerably down from the 34 cow/calf pairs in 1998/99 and the 174 cow/calves in 1997/98. Total northbound figures will be less than last year as well when 1383 northbound grays were counted. Be sure to look at the graphs and summaries of the migration data on the ACS website!

Mike and Winston continue to keep me informed of the latest news. They said in British Columbia on May 12, Carla Wilson of The Times Colonist reported a stranding of a 13-meter gray whale that died at Ganges on Saltspring Island. This is the ninth to be found dead in B.C. waters so far this year.

Nancy Black of Monterey Bay Whale Watch in Monterey, California (36.67N,-122.00W) is not seeing any more gray whales. Nancy says, however, that they are not going close to shore looking for calves. She does say, "We have been out everyday looking for killer whales and predation on gray whale calves. We have not seen that, and have had few killer whale sightings, although for the last 3 days, killer whales have been around. We suspect that the low number of mother/calf gray whales is the reason we have not observed attacks this year yet."

Marine Discovery Tours in Newport, Oregon (44.61N, 124.08W) reported their first cow/calf pair on April 7. They were feeding in 22 fathoms off the south reef in Newport. Their first resident gray whale, named Notch, showed up on April 10, feeding one mile south of Newport in 20 fathoms. They reported four northbound migrating whales on May 2. On May 7, they reported one whale inside the south reef at Newport in18 fathoms, probably feeding. They also saw 4 orcas inside the jetties at Newport during an afternoon cruise. On May 8, they saw two grays, another whale feeding on the south reef at Newport in 18 fathoms on May 12. Finally, on May 15, they spotted a migrating gray whale north of Newport in 20 fathoms.

Mike Rivers writes that the preliminary data from the spring migration on the Oregon Coast is available on the front page of Whale Watch Spoken Here. Check out this link for a photo/story of the stranded gray whale in Newport that I spoke about in the last report.

Scientists Study A Whale That Dies
Rod Palm of Strawberry Isle Research Society in Tofino, British Columbia (49.11N, 125.88 W) writes that the migration at this point is very sporadic but they are still getting as many a six whales in a given hour. Many of these are now moms with calves. On May 5, their first cow/calf pair was spotted off Long Beach by whale watch driver Dominique Dupuis. Rod writes that most years they only have a couple gray whale strandings in their area, but none have been reported this year except a young gray whale that was entangled and drowned in a herring pond net. I include below excerpts from Rodís report about the examination proceedings on the dead whale. The exam was carried out March 7 ó10 at Ahousaht, B.C. Please note two items in this report. First, that the Makah Nation apparently extends into Canada and secondly, please note the samples that were taken by the Stranding responders. What do you think scientists can learn from taking such samples from the dead whale? How else would they be able to learn such information? Rod's report included this information:

"On March 7 we were tasked by Ed Lochbaum to do a cursory examination of a reported dead Gray Whale at a Herring pond in Sidney Inlet. On March 8, after acquiring permission from Ahousaht Fisheries officer Darel Campbell, we proceeded to the incident. On arrival we approached the people on thesite where the dead whale was tied off on one of the pond's anchor lines. We were told that the whale tangled itself in the net and drowned. We were told that the Ahousaht Band would allow us to work on the whale after the Makah butchers were finished removing the blubber and meat. We stood down.

"The whale was towed to Ahousaht on March 9. When we landed at the beach in Ahousaht we identified ourselves and explained to Chief James Swan exactly what we were required to do to the whale. This meeting went well but the ceremonies and butchering took much longer than anticipated. We again had to stand down. We were told that Swan laid claim to the whale because the incident happened in his traditional family territory (Openit).

"On March 10 we landed at Ahousaht without incident but still had to wait as the Makah butchers were still working. It became apparent that we could end up having to stand down again because of the incoming tide so I approached the Makah who allowed us to get started opening up the whale. There was some suspicion at first, but they soon became quite interested in how we removed the ribs and dealt with the internal organs. The whale was a 9.7 meter long (measured to fluke notch) male with a greatest girth of 4.3 meters. Overall appearance was healthy with no major body or fin scaring and minimal barnacle coverage. There was severe laceration around the left pectoral flipper, presumably from its entanglement with the net as towing was facilitated from the tail. Internally nothing was seen to be out of order.
The stomach contained approximately 5 litres of fish skeletons (likely Pacific Herring), roe and assorted algae. All organs were found to be in good health.

"We collected:
Skin (in DMSO), forwarded to Lance Barrett-Lennard
Blubber (in double wrapped foil, for freezing)
Stomach contents (double zip lock bagged)
Tissue samples of heart, lung, liver, kidney and intestine (in formalin solutions)."

In Alaska
In Sitka, Jan Straley, a humpback researcher with the University of Alaska, has had no reports of gray whales. She is wondering if the migration is winding down or the whales are traveling further offshore.

Mike Brittain of the M/V Cape Aialik in Seward, Alaska (60.05N, 149.43W) saw about 30 fin whales, a few humpbacks, and probably 70 resident (fish-eating) orcas about 10 days ago between Cape Resurrection (59.54N,149.29W) and the Chiswell Islands (59.60N, 149.60W). Mike had heard from one of the charter skippers that she was seeing King and bright Chum Salmon in her catches in the same area. Perhaps the orcas were feeding on these fish.

In Kodiak, Eric Stirrup, on the F/V Tenbears, saw his first two Fin whales of the season on May 14 on Marmot Flats (57.86N, 152.08W). He thinks that he saw a solitary gray on May 13, but he only saw the remainder of the blow and did not see it again. On May 3, off the north end of Long Island (57.77N, 152.22W), Eric spotted 2-4 grays which appeared to be one very large adult, two smaller animals, and one sub-adult. Eric went out on May 4 and May 6 and did not see any more traveling groups. He wondered if perhaps the very strong northerly winds on May 6 may have pushed whales offshore. He fished at Chiniak (57.62N, 152.17W) and Cape Grevelle on May 4 and didn't see any whales all day, though the conditions were perfect with clear skies and less than 20kts of winds. Eric writes: "Still lots of activity down off Narrow Cape but I'm becoming more and more convinced at least some of this is our Homesteaders. Sally Magnuson was out the road with her daughter and grandkids yesterday, May 6, and there were grays actively feeding both at the Bear Paw ranch beach (57.43N, 152.34W) and right off the river mouth at Pasagshak. In fact, one whale was just gently swimming along the kelp bed edge, mouth agape, amidst diving Kittiwakes, Gulls and diving birds. These are big tides and there are lots of Pacific Sandlance in the water column and near the beaches right now. Also, there are several grays just sort of sleeping off the big beach at Pasagshak."

In addition to Eric's report from Narrow Cape (57.43N, 152.34W), Patrick Saltonstall saw spouts everywhere on May 6. He estimated that there were 40-50 grays, looking toward the southwest and Ugak Bay (57.45N, 152.73W) from Narrow Cape. They appeared to be milling around. Looking toward the Ugak Island Passage (57.40N, 152.32W), he saw no whales traveling through. Patrick also reports two to three grays in Pashagshak Bay (57.44N, 152.49W). On May 2, Eva Holm was also out Narrow Cape way, and she saw two outside the surf line at Bear Paw ranch and 10 grays feeding in Pashagshak Bay. She noticed tube worms cast up on the beach in Pashagshak at low tide, and wondered if perhaps the grays were feeding on these. I asked James Darling of West Coast Whale Research Foundation about this, and he thought that perhaps the whales were disturbing these tube worms in their quest for mysids or other bottom feed. On May 7, Alisa Abookire spotted eight grays looking southwest towards Pashagshak Point (57.43N, 152.34W) and Ugak Bay, but saw none looking toward the Ugak Island Passage.

Charles Lean of Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Nome, Alaska tells me that the last he heard is that gray whales are in Kuskokwim Bay (59.67N, 162.33W) at the river mouth. They are preceding the herring by just a little bit. Charles will be retiring in two weeks. Good Luck, Charles, and thank you for your contributions!

Sheila Gaquin, a school teacher in Point Hope, writes that about two weeks ago the pack ice moved back in and they've had no open water since then.

Last Words: Signs of Summer
This past weekend I wanted to go to Narrow Cape to see the gray whale migration, but it was sunny warm weather, perfect for working on our salmon fishing gear. We painted the boat instead. As consolation, I took a kayak ride outside our bay to the bird rocks on International Migratory Bird Day, May 13. There I spotted my first Horned Puffins and Arctic Terns of the season, but no whales! Two days earlier I had not seen these "firsts," but spotted many nesting Tufted Puffins and Parakeet Auklets. These are signs that our summer is quickly approaching. On May, 3, on our way home, I finally saw the bear tracks in the snow on the mountains above our house. Everywhere, the hills are beginning to green.

My frustration at not getting out to Narrow Cape this past week or enough this season reminds me how valuable are the sightings given by all our volunteers along the migration route. Once again, thank you everyone for your contributions and efforts to make this report a reality! Enjoy your summer.

Compare your daylight to ours in Kodiak; sunrise on May 17 is 0441 and sunset is 2132.

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

References used in preparing "Why So Many Strandings" in Today's Update:
Rice, D.W., and Wolman, A.A., 1971. The life history and ecology of the gray whale (Eschrichtius robustus). Sec. Publ.- Am. Soc. Mammal. 3:1-142.

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