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Field Notes from Susan Payne

May 5, 1999

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

During aerial surveys on April 27, looking for herring, Jim Browning of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game spotted a hundred gray whales between Right Hand Point (58.75 N, -159.92 W) and Summit Island (58.90 N,-160.18 W) off Togiak. "First" cow/calf pairs were spotted in Kodiak on April 18 and in Seward, on April 20 and April 25! In California, as of Saturday, May 1, 1344 northbound gray whales and 22 cow/calf pairs have been counted by the American Cetacean Society (ACS) census from Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula near Los Angeles(33.44 N, -118.24 W). As of April 28, 38 northbound cow/calf pairs have been seen at Granite Canyon, just south of Carmel (36.52 N, -121.92 W) by the Southwest Fisheries Science Center census.

Here in Kodiak, suddenly Whale Fest Kodiak, is over! Attendance soared this year, especially for the events on Saturday, April 24. In the morning, the Alutiiq Museum and the Kodiak Island National Wildlife Refuge cohosted the Families Understanding Nature Program focusing on archeology, Alutiiq culture, and whales. In the afternoon, over a hundred people came to learn from Dr. Gil Bane about sharks and to dissect a sleeper shark at the Kodiak College. That evening, the Oceans of the Whale Poetry Fest at the Mill Bay Coffee Company was also a packed house. Local poets, Leslie Fields, Toby Sullivan, Danielle Jones, Jordan Sullivan, and Lisa Polito, read their own works and other well-known literature about whales. The open-microphone proved to be a great success as a woman from Nelson Island gave us her whaling poem and dance in her native language. It was a wonderful way to finish Whale Fest!

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, the coordinator for the ACS census at Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula (33.44 N, -118.24 W) is seeing very few whales now. As of Saturday May 1, this year's northbound count is 1344 gray whales; cow/calf pair count is 22. They are only seeing one-two cow/calf pairs on any given day and six northbound gray whales is the highest count, recorded on April 27 and 30, in the last two weeks. They had 162 cow/calf pairs last year by this time. She is now wondering when the peak of the cow/calf pairs will be this year? For more check out the ACS daily count.

Mike and Winston want to reward all students who participated in the Journey North program with a Kool Kid Award. Apparently, the award was Winston's idea! Mike sends us news from the Hotel Twin Dolphin in Cabo San Lucas that this year was the best whale-watching year down there in nine years. In Monterey Bay, Mike's friends, out on the M/V Sea Dog, report a close encounter with a lunge feeding humpback whale and feeding gray whales; the krill are everywhere there!

No report from the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary this week.

Wayne Perryman, of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center has conducted a cow/calf census from Piedras Blancas, Granite Canyon, just south of Carmel (36.52 N, -121.92 W) since 1994. This year's northbound migration so far is later than any previous year. For further discussion about this cow/calf census, please see the Challenge Question #5 answer below.

  • April 28: 38 northbound cow/calf pairs compared to 350 cow/calf pairs last year, and an average for this time of 150 cow/calf pairs since 1994.

Nancy Black of Monterey Bay Whale Watch reports 1-2 northbound gray whales per three hour trip. She has not seen any alive cow/calf pairs on her watch. The grays are still feeding on krill. The humpback whales are starting to come into Monterey Bay.

  • April 24: Nancy found a dead gray whale calf that had fallen prey to killer whales. They missed the actual attack. (36.67N, -122.00W)

I was unable to reach Christina Folger, of Marine Discovery Tours in Newport for their information. Take a look at the Spring 1999 Whale Watch Week Preliminary Notes for some interesting numbers for Whale Watch Spoken Here. Mike Rivers reports, as of April 21, 1479 gray whales had been counted and 17,997 visitors had visited all thirty observations posts between March 20-27!

In Westport, Washington (46.88 N, -124.10 W), Geoff Grillo of Advantage Sport Fishing has gone halibut fishing out of Neah Bay, so we will not hear more from him this year.

Rod Palm, the principle investigator for the Strawberry Island Research Society in Tofino (49.10 N, -125.93 W) keeps track of all the whale sightings on Vancouver Island. Rod is reporting some nice weather; he actually told me he was gardening in shorts! They have four whales in Grice Bay (49.20 N, -126.10 W) that seem to have settled in for the summer, and are bottomfeeding. On April 24, Rod emailed me that "waves" of whales were passing by with a dozen spotted on the horizon at any given time, or alternately, only one whale per entire day. He reports, on Monday, May 3, only occassional single whales passing alongshore.

Jan Straley from the University of Alaska in Sitka emailed me on April 27 that she had heard of gray whales "streaming by" off Cape Edgecumbe(56.99 N, -135.85 W). Jan photographed a small gray whale (25-30 feet) seen feeding very nearshore near town along the road system. This whale was observed feeding on herring eggs on kelp and also bottomfeeding on other stuff. Apparently, there were a lot of herring fry around. Jan did not know if this was a resident whale, but she was going to send her photos to John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research for possible identification.

In Seward, Leslie Hines of Kenai Fjords Tours continues to have exciting sightings, even two more cow/calf pairs!

  • April 25: Captain Bob Willard, on a gray whale watch in Day Harbor(59.98 N, -149.17 W), saw ten whale in two groups. One group had six whales and the other group had four whales; both groups included calves.
  • April 21: Kenai Fjords Tours Marine Science Explorer Program with the Bartlett and Seward High School on board saw four whales, two positively identified as barnacle-encrusted adults (59.53 N, -149.23W).
  • April 18: Bob and Kathy Willard of Kenai Fjords Tours, with the Golden View Middle School from Anchorage on-board, saw their "first" cow/calf pair with another closely associated gray whale, an "outrider", and two other whales separated by a quater mile (59.53 N,-149.28 W). These six whales were reported as a Journey North News Flash on April 26.

Now that Whale Fest is over, the Whale Alerts are slowing down. Whalewatching a week ago still seemed very good. I have not had any more reports of cow/calf pairs, but a yearling was reported this last weekend by M/V Ten Bears.

  • May 2: Harvey Goodel reports a breaching and tail flapping humpback whale, possibly feeding, off Dangerous Cape (57.26 N, -152.71 W) on the east side of Kodiak. This whale was with other unidentified whales. Also, ten gray whales at Narrow Cape(59.71 N, -149.53 W).
  • May 1: Four grays off the northeast corner of Long Island (59.71 N, -149.53 W) passing close to shore, in 30 feet of water, near a Stellar sealion haulout. There appeared to be a cow and a yearling calf about 25 feet in length in the company of two very large adults.
  • April 25:25 gray whales at Narrow Cape (59.71 N, -149.53 W) reported by Harvey Goodel as they were transiting the area on the way back to town.
  • April 25: 15 gray whales per hour and possibly a fin whale at Narrow Cape (59.71 N, -149.53 W) spotted by the Audubon whale-watching walkers.
  • April 24: Three gray whales at Narrow Cape (59.71 N, -149.53 W). Three gray whales spotted 100 yards off Silver Beach at Cape Chiniak (57.62 N, -152.17 W).
  • April 20: Eight gray whales were sighted in an hour at Cape Chiniak(57.62 N, -152.17 W).
  • April 22: One whale spotted along the east side of Long Island (57.76N,-152.26W) by the M/V Ten Bears, on a whale-watching trip with Stacey Studebaker's science students from the Kodiak High School. Also, they spotted horned puffins and two Rhinoceros Auklets (apparently, a very early sighting for these birds).

In False Pass we have another contact named Buck Laukitis who lives right on Isanotski straits at the narrows of False Pass. He tells me that he has been keeping track of whales there for the last ten years, and the previous owner also kept track of the whales for ten years prior to that. April 16 is when the sightings of gray whales started to happen in False Pass, and this is about normal timing. Buck says that the prime viewing will last another month and on through June. Also, he says that they have a lot of orca predation on gray whales in the Pass. Two years ago, there were four gray whales floating together with just their tongues missing, victims of an apparent orca attack. I have not received a current report from Buck, but here is some older news.

  • April 16-20: 4-10 gray whales each day seen in front of their house (54.85 N, -163.40W).
  • April 20: Large pod of harbor porpoises (54.85 N, -163.40W).
  • April 19: Lone orca came through False Pass (54.85 N, -163.40W).
  • April 17: Five-seven orcas (54.85 N, -163.40W).

On Monday, May 3, John Concilius of the False Pass school, tells me that many gray whales have been sighted by fishermen outside the Pass on the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula (54.73 N, -163.21 W). They have not seen them in front of the school dock yet and I could not see them on the live weather camera on Isanotski Strait. Apparently, three orca biologists were there last week sent by the Sea Otter Commission. Maybe, we will get more information on their sightings in our next report. John says that the bears are up, and the snow is still falling.

On Monday, May 3, I again spoke with Jim Browning of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dillingham, Alaska. The Togiak Herring season will be quite late this year because of ice conditions and the cold water. During aerial surveys on April 27, looking for herring, they spotted a hundred gray whales between Right Hand Point (58.75 N, -159.92 W) and Summit Island (58.90 N,-160.18 W) off Togiak. Apparently they had been seen on April 26. This year's sighting is eleven days later than last year's April 16 sighting. Jim reports that the whales were in ice clear water nearshore, but that the pack ice is five miles offshore stretching southward for another 20-30 miles. He thinks the whales may have had to swim under the ice, or have followed leads to get where they are. Many of the Togiak herring fleet are waiting near Port Heiden for the ice to break up so they can get to their fishing grounds. Again, I refer you to the National Weather Service, Alaska Region for a picture of the ice situation.

Up in Gambel (63.83N, -146.68 W) on St. Lawrence Island, we are talking to Larry Dickerson, a biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. He is there monitoring the walrus and bowhead whale hunting. He reports that there is so much ice that the Gambel whalers have only had one day of hunting on April 24; it was a successful hunt and they landed their first bowhead of the season. In Savoonga (63.70 N -170.37 W), also on St. Lawrence Island, they have landed two bowheads on April 23 and May 1. Beluga whales have been sighted on the south side of the island where there is just abit of open water, but still no word of gray whales.

With Whale Fest officially over, my family and I are focusing our attention on home this week. The ice finally went out of our bay on Friday, April 23, and when we went home on Sunday, April 25, we could park our skiff in front of the house. On Wednesday, April 21, we saw the first three American black oystercatchers in the bay; now our peace and quiet is over with these very beautifully noisey birds back in the area. The following Wednesday, April 28, I counted 20 paired pigeon guillemots. The buds are coming out on the elderberry bushes. But on May 1, my favorite holiday, it was sunny but very cold, and not a flower in the yard. Where are the bear tracks on the mountains? The days continue to lengthen: on May 5, sunrise is 0509 and sunset is 2105 for a total of 15 hours and 55 minutes of daylight.

Answer #5: What reasons can you think of for the lower cow/calf count so far this season, as compared to last years at this time? To answer this question I had to Ask an Expert and found two: Dave Rugh of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory and Wayne Perryman of the Southwest Fisheries Research Center. Here are some possible reasons:

  1. Late migration: Wayne Perryman says that the northbound adult/juvenile phase of this year's migration looks about normal, but maybe abit late. In the last five years, the cow/calf pair migration has started after the adults and juveniles have mostly passed by. They will not know if this year is late until the peak has passed. Possibly the northbound migration is late because more whales traveled further south this year?
  2. Low recruitment: Gray whales usually give birth every other year. Wayne Perryman has identified in his cow/calf pair census at Piedras Blancas that there is "odd" and "even" year variability in fucundity; the "odds" seem to have greater variability, 500 calves in 1997 to 194 calves in 1995, than the "even" year whales which have produced a regular number of calves, 325 calves in 1994 to 430 calves in 1998. Wayne cautions that the variability in the "odd" year whales may be an El Nino effect. Wayne also saw fewer pregnant females in this year's aerial survey of southbound pregnant females which leads him to the conclusion that recruitment may be low this year.
  3. El Nino vs La Nina events: Last year, an El Nino year, the migration was early; this year is a La Nina year, and they may just be late.
  4. Did some cow/calf pairs slip by the Granite Canyon Census early? Wayne Perryman acknowledges that there is a possibility that some cow/calf pairs went by before the census started on March 22; they had their first cow/calf pair on March 23, and then a few days passed before they counted any again. Remember the ACS census at Point Vicente saw their first cow/calf pair March 11. This may explain our "first" cow/calf pairs in Alaska on April 18 in Kodiak and April 20 in Seward. Dave Rugh explained that it takes about a month for the cow/calf pairs to travel from Oregon to Cape Sarichef on Unimak Island according to a study by Polly Hessing in 1981.

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

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