MONTEREY — This time of year, gray whales are making their annual southern migration from Alaska and are cruising through Monterey Bay on their arduous journey to their calving grounds in the lagoons of Mexico.
But scientists are watching the pods closely following last year’s significant mortality rate of the 35-ton marine mammals. Their 12,000-mile trek is an annual ritual that packs the whale-watching boats moored to Old Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey as well as Moss Landing and Santa Cruz.
It is the longest mammal migration of any species on Earth.
Gray whales, like this one from the 2018 migration, are now moving through Monterey Bay. (Monterey Herald file photo)
The migration of on average 27,000 whales got off to a bit of a slow start this year but is now picking up momentum, allowing scientists and nonprofit groups dedicated to protecting the whales let out a collective sigh of relief, according to land-based observers on the coast of Rancho Palo Verdes.
There was some concern because of the abnormal amount of fatalities that occurred during last year’s southern migration, said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who runs the annual Gray Whale Census & Behavior Project from the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes.
The southern migration historically peaks along the Central Coast in mid-January. By mid-March, with calves in tow, the pods will turn north for their migration to the Bering Sea where they summer. During the entire migration, north and south, the whales do not eat — a total of two months.
The hope is that they foraged longer in their northern feeding grounds and will be healthier as they make their migration, potentially rebounding after a year in which they were skinny, starving and washing up dead in large numbers along the entire West Coast
The fatalities led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May to declare an “unusual mortality event” over concern for the species. Necropsies — animal autopsies — were conducted on some of the whales, with findings indicating many were emaciated, according to NOAA.
It is too soon to draw any conclusions from such a small sampling of sightings off the coast of Rancho Palos Verdes, said Dr. Bruce Mate, professor emeritus at the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University. Sightings, he said, could depend on factors such as weather. Storms can drive pods farther from shore, out of sight of land-based observers.
Mate said there are a number of explanations as to why the number of fatalities jumped last year, but the one he puts the most stock in has to do with the amount of food available in the northern feeding grounds compared to the current population of whales.
Emaciated gray whales like this one that washed up on a California beach in 2019, resulted in a higher than normal mortality rate. (provided by National Park Service)
“Right now just leaving the feeding grounds they are in the best condition of the year,” Mate said. “We don’t expect to see many fatalities now.”
Source:: The Mercury News – Lifestyle