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Field Notes from Susan Payne

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

Welcome to the Journey North gray whale tracking project! Another exciting season has begun! My name is Susan Payne and I am the coordinator for these gray whale reports. To provide you with the current northbound migration information, I will contact professional whale-watchers along the West coast. With their assistance we will track the gray whales as they move north along the coast from Los Angeles to Barrow, Alaska.

I live in Kodiak Alaska and I work at the National Marine Fisheries Service. For the third year I will organize the Kodiak Whale Fest, a migration celebration from April 16-25 this year. At the end of March, when we expect to see our first northbound gray whales, we will start our Whale Alert program that alerts the Kodiak community to the gray whales and other whales at Narrow Cape and around town.

In the main gray whale update you will find links to webpages that represent my contacts and that will assist you in your research. You will also find a table of latitudes and longitudes of the locations that I mention in this report.

Southbound News
Over the winter here in Kodiak we have had some interesting interactions with gray whales. During the annual Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count on December 27, Richard Macintosh reported a wonderful display of hundreds of gray whales and their spouts off Narrow Cape. The whales continued past, with reports on December 30 and January 4. Our local newspaper reported that according to Al Cratty Jr., a local fisherman, these were the highest whale densities he had seen in 43 years. On January 10, near Chiniak, Michael Duxbury saw 3 gray whales and, then not long afterwards, 4 orcas. One of these orcas had a strange dorsal fin which I believe belongs to a whale that is known for eating marine mammals. Were they after the gray whales? Most years there are only a few gray whales seen at this time of year, most migrating through in November and December. The whales were also passing closer to shore than usual, both here in Kodiak and in Sitka as reported by Jan Straley. Jan Straley is still getting reports of gray whales off Sitka, but she has no specifics as few people are out looking right now.

Dave Rugh, a National Marine Mammal Laboratory biologist and gray whale expert, is still working on a summary of the 1998/99 southbound migration but his initial impression is that the whales were traveling south in a denser concentration and the migration was a week later than usual. Off the Washington coast this peak was probably around January 15. He said that the National Marine Mammal Laboratory aerial surveys off the Washington coast in November and early December showed the passage of very few gray whales at that time. And in Newport, Oregon Bruce Mate saw very few gray whales in early December, a time when the migration should have been underway there. At the same time, the American Cetacean Society census at Point Vicente near Los Angeles saw counts similar to other years.

According to Dave, the migratory timing of gray whales is very regular. The median date varies only five to six days. He says that this regular timing in the migration must be influenced by photoperiod and not by weather. Conditions in the Arctic such as early ice formation and a late summer may also affect this timing. Last year, 1998, was the warmest year on record and this may have delayed the whales' migration southward.

Will this small delay in the southbound migration affect the northbound migration?
New California contacts this year, Michael Hawe and his dog pal Winston, have told me that the first northbound gray whale was seen December 12 from Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula near Los Angeles. On January 25, Mike reported the sightings of 25 orcas, heading southbound from Point Vicente and on February 1, 50 orcas were observed off Point Dume. As of Monday, February 8, the ACS census is reporting 26 northbound whales and 15 southbound cow/calf pairs. Mike also told me that near the Channel Islands, killer whales were seen feeding on a large gray object. Could this gray object be a gray whale? Mike and Winston participate in the annual American Cetacean Society census at Point Vicente. Both Mike and ACS have websites that post the daily Point Vicente census count. Mike and Winston also have descriptions of gray whale behavior that will be useful for your study of gray whales. For these links please on today's report.

This year Julie Goodson will give us reports from the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary off Santa Barbara. On February 4, a northbound gray whale passed through a gap in Stern's wharf; a gap created, in November, by fire. They wanted to know if gray whales would pass through this gap and now they know! Two pods of southbound whales were sighted on the north side of Santa Rosa Island on February 7. Julie is looking for confirmation of the killer whale sighting that Mike told us about. This may have to wait until our next report.

In Monterey, Nancy Black of the Monterey Bay Whale Watch, reports only southbound whales. She thinks the southbound peak in Monterey was during the third week of January. She is expecting to see northbound whales next week. They were seeing blue whales into January which is later than usual. Common dolphins are a regular sight there. How lucky she is to go out and see whales for a living!

The Kodiak Ground Hog saw his shadow this year so I cannot tell you that spring is coming! Until our next report...good whale-watching!

Susan Payne

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