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Gray Whale Migration Update: February 9, 2000

Today's Report Includes:

Live From the Gray Whale Nurseries

Gray Whale Nursery Lagoons

Since December, gray whales have been arriving in the four calving and mating lagoons of Mexico's Baja California coast. What's it like at the southern end of the gray whale migration route? Kristin "Ellie" Kusic describes Laguna San Ignacio from aboard a whale watch tour boat. Close your eyes and picture this:

"A mother gray whale spyhops a few feet from the boat. Her baby frolics nearby. The calf rolls along her mother's back as the huge whale surfaces to breathe. Both take one more breath, arch their backs, and slowly disappear into the water. A few minutes pass as we wait for the whales to return to the surface. The calf comes up first, and we see bright orange "whale lice" encircling her blowhole. The mother surfaces soon after, takes a breath, and turns towards the boat. Hands splashing in the water are now gently touching the mother whale. The calf now seems to have permission to come up to the boat, playfully lifting her head out of the water so that we can touch her skin. No one truly understands why these whale-human interactions occur. Is the mother teaching her calf about boats & humans? Or are we a way to entertain a curious young whale?

"Hi, Journey North students! This is my first week here in Laguna San Ignacio. I am a marine biologist working as a naturalist for Baja Discovery, taking folks whale watching twice a day. How many whales are here? A January 27, 2000, census of gray whales arriving in this lagoon found 63 single whales and 14 mother/calf pairs. On February 3rd, a second census counted 70 single whales and 25 mother/calf pairs in San Ignacio.

"San Ignacio Lagoon has long been a safe place for mother whales and their calves. One area (1/4) of the lagoon is set aside for whale watching, while the rest (3/4) of the lagoon is for the whales only. Approximately 120 families live in several small fishing villages around the lagoon and make their living there. They spend part of the year catching fish and lobsters and the other part taking tourists whale watching. Kuyima Ecotourismo is the organization of local people who make the decisions about whale watching. Laws limit the number of boats and the amount of time boats can spend on the water. San Ignacio Lagoon is a great example of how people can live sustainably within their environment. I hope this gives you some idea about what it's like here in San Ignacio Lagoon. I'll be writing to you again!" Kristin "Ellie" Kusic

Holy Cow, What a Calf!
Keith Jones is crazy about the baby whales in the lagoons. This seasoned guide, photographer, and whale advocate writes from San Ignacio to tell us more:

Baby with dimples
Photo Courtesy of Keith Jones

"This photo shows a baby that was surfacing near our boat on January 22, 2000. Like him, most of the dozen babies we saw were from one to three weeks old. Babies this young have a pug-nosed appearance, with facial dimples where their hair follicles are. The white specks at the center of the dimples are the actual hairs. Remember: whales are mammals, so they must have some hair!

"Because they are still learning and gaining strength, most of the babies' time is spent swimming alongside their mothers. When they get tired, we could see them stretch out sideways across the mother's back to rest. Sometimes we observed the mother extending a fin to support the calf. This is very much like an adult parent, who might place a hand under their child's stomach while teaching the child how to swim.

Gray Whale Nursery Lagoons
Photo Courtesy of Keith Jones

"The pregnant females and those with calves concentrate in the inner lagoon, farthest from the sea. The majority of births occur from early January to the end of February. A newborn gray whale is around 15 feet long at birth and weighs around 2000 pounds. In some cases, another gray whale called an auntie helps during the birth. The auntie may help hold the mother above the water, so the calf may be born headfirst into the air. The auntie or the mother will also push a calf born underwater as it swims to the surface for its first breath of air.

"The warmer waters of Baja Mexico's shallow lagoons help newborns to conserve body heat. They are born lean and relatively blubberless. The calves nurse for around 6 months, during which time the mother provides up to 50 gallons of milk each day. The milk contains 53% fat, and calves may gain 60 to 70 pounds daily, building up blubber for their cold trip north."

That's all for now! Best regards to all the Gray Whale Advocates out there from Keith (Baja) Jones.(Baja Jones Adventure Travel)

How 'Bout Those Babies?
Using clues and photos in Today's Update, see if you can answer these Challenge Questions:

Challenge Question #1
"About how much will a calf weigh by the time it's two months old and begins the migration north? Why is this weight gain important?"

Challenge Question #2
"What are three reasons why Baja's lagoons make such good nurseries?"

(To respond to these questions, please follow the instructions at the end of this report.)

Coming to the Rescue
Keith Jones also wrote, "Baby gray whales are usually born in the lagoons of Baja. Of course, just as with people, the actual birth can occur early and anywhere along the migration route." What happens then? Read what Keith did when he found a stranded gray whale newborn.

Latest Highlights from the Gray Whale Observation Posts
Welcome back to Susan Payne, in her third year of reporting for a network of experts and

Susan Payne with son Will Ross H. Dumm

observers all along the migration trail. "Two-way whale traffic" was the theme of this week's report, as the following highlights show!

The first northbound gray whales have been spotted, but the southward migration is still in full swing! Again this year, the whales are running late. As recently as January 22, four whales were seen plowing past Kodiak, Alaska. Off the California coast, Nancy Black of the Monterey Bay Whale Watch (36.37 N,-121.54 W) still reports southbound groups of 20 to 30 whales, somewhat unusual for this time of year.

Whales are heading north, too. The season's first migrating northbound gray whale was reported December 2 from Long Point (33.74 N,-118.39 W) near Los Angeles. This is the observation post of the American Cetacean Society (ACS) Census. As of February 7, the ACS Census reported a total of 21 northbound gray whales, traveling in 1's, 2's, or 3's. Observers farther up the California coast are still waiting, but Nancy Black of the Monterey Bay Whale Watch (36.37 N,-121.54 W), expects to see the first northbound whales during the week of February 15. For many more highlights from this week's report, including a report of dolphins harassing gray whale mother/calf pairs, see:

Arrival in Kodiak: Challenge Question #3
Use the clues below to answer...

Challenge Question #3:
"When do you predict the first gray whale will be sighted in the Gulf of Alaska, near Kodiak?"

1. Gray whales migrate at approximately 3-5 mph.
2. The location of the first northbound gray whale sighting is above.

(To respond to these questions, please follow the instructions at the end of this report.)

How to Respond to Today's Challenge Questions:
Please answer ONLY ONE question in EACH e-mail message.

1. Address an e-mail message to:
2. In the Subject Line of your message write: Challenge Question #1 (or #2 or #3).
3. In the body of EACH message, give your answer to ONE of the questions above.

The Next Gray Whale Migration Update Will Be Posted on February 23, 2000.

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