From Baja Mexico to arctic Alaska with no food and a big baby that killer whales desperately want to eat: the perilous trip north of the mama gray whale
by Mark McDermott
About seven miles off the coast, a watery white plume sprays into the air directly ahead of the boat, followed seconds later by another, shorter burst right beside the first.
“Twelve o’clock! We’ve got two whales straight ahead at twelve o’clock!” the captain shouts through the speaker, and the thirty people aboard scramble towards the bow, dangling cameras and dragging children. The two whales are about two hundred yards away, while another couple hundred feet beyond a third whale blows.
The deck of the boat is alive with clicks and gasps as everyone struggles to gain position on the rails, adjusting lenses or just staring drop-jawed as a large gray back emerges from the water and rolls gracefully back under. A smaller gray back rolls briefly to the surface right beside it.
“We have a cow-calf pair!” says Peggy Gillian, a docent from American Cetacean Society. She estimates the mother is 35 tons and maybe 40 feet long. Gillian has been volunteering aboard whale watching boats ever since she and her husband retired ten years ago and has become expert at sizing up whales in these quick glimpses. “He took up golf,” she explains. “I took up whales.”
The people aboard the “Voyager,” a whale watch boat operated by Redondo Sport Fishing, knew they were lucky to behold this sight. But they didn’t know quite how lucky. There is the hit-and-miss nature of any whale-watching trip, of course—the “Voyager’s” morning trip on this same day didn’t yield a single sighting—but what they witnessed on this afternoon was something particularly special. It was the first northbound mother and calf sighted by local whale watchers this year, and one of the very first seen up and down the entire coast.
Few calves, in fact, have been spotted over the last four years. California gray whales, one of the few animals ever to rebound from near-extinction, have faced perilous times.
Gray whales recovered so robustly from the devastation wrought by commercial whaling that they were removed from the Endangered Species list in 1994. But no sooner had the population climbed to similar numbers as in the pre-whaling days of the first half of the 19th century — an estimated 26,000 whales — when catastrophe struck again. For three years, beginning in 1998, hundreds of dead whales began washing up on Pacific shores. Biologists speculated that if this many were washing up, the total number dying was probably in the thousands, and many of the surviving whales appeared so gaunt that it appeared the entire population was in danger of a drastic downward spiral. Last year’s birth rates were the lowest since the population escaped the endangered designation.
Scientists are still trying to decipher what happened, but likely it was a combination of factors. Wayne Perryman, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, has developed a persuasive model that linked the deaths with several cold arctic seasons in which not enough ice thawed to allow the whales to make it to key feeding grounds.
“So far the model I’ve built looks pretty good,” says Perryman, who is one of the foremost experts on the northern migration. “But ice is only one part of the puzzle.” Other factors may have included a decrease in population of their favorite prey, and there is some speculation that the size of the whale population may have neared its upper limit.
Ultimately there is a persistence of mystery surrounding these great gray behemoths. Because they travel closer to land than other whales, we know more about their behavior than almost any other whale. “They have the common decency to pass near shore,” jokes Perryman. But because their journey is so immense, there is still much we cannot know. What exactly happens out in the roiling, frigid waters past the Bering Strait? It’s impossible to say for sure. As Perryman says, “It’s hard to study animals that don’t have the common decency to get out of the water.”
In any case, the sight of a mother and her calf spouting before the Voyager was a harbinger of hope.
Most of the gray whale migration north has already occurred, but in the next six weeks the last segment of the population to travel will make its move: mothers and calves. There is guarded optimism that this will be a year of recovery. Whale watchers up and down the coast will have their binoculars fixed on the water and their hopes fixed on those smaller blows, the ones that evidence a newborn making its first journey north alongside its mother.
A Mexican vacation
The migration of the California gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, is one of the most amazing journeys in all the wild blue of this planet. Gray whales travel 10,000 to 14,000 miles each year as they swim from their feeding grounds in the frigid waters between Alaska and Russia down to lagoons in Baja Mexico and back again. It is the longest known migration of any mammal.
They spend the summer and early fall gorging on the muddy sea-bottom, primarily on amphipods, tiny shrimp-like creatures seasonally abundant in the waters of the Bering and Chukchi Seas. The gray whale’s feeding methods are unique among cetaceans: it rolls onto its side, sucking sediment from the seabed, retaining its prey while filtering out silt and water through the brush-like strands located on plates in its upper jaw called the baleen. During the peak feeding period, adults consume more than a ton of food per day.
In October their great journey begins. They essentially will not feed again until returning late the next spring or early summer, but will live off the reserves of fat stored in a 6 to 15 inch layer of blubber. Pregnant cows generally leave first, more urgent is their need to make it to the calm waters of the Mexican lagoons. It was once believed that most breeding and birthing occurred in these lagoons, but biologists have since learned that breeding and calving often occurs during the 2 to 3 month journey south.
It is an astonishing undertaking, this long migration, but the enormity of it borders on the mind-boggling when one considers the plight of a pregnant female. She will travel the many thousand miles without feeding, give birth somewhere along the way, nurse her newborn to health, and attempt to return, with baby in tow, through waters lurking with Orcas who have a wild appetite for young gray whale meat.
“The reproducing females are usually the part of the population that are most at risk,” says Perryman. “They are the first to leave the feeding grounds and the last to get back up, which is physically quite a challenge. They are fasting and lactating while bringing their babies all the way back to Alaska. That is a big event. It’s an amazing journey.”