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Gray Whale Migration Update: February 23, 2000

Today's Report Includes:

Introducing Tom Lewis in San Ignacio

Gray Whale Nursery Lagoons
(Click on face of map)

Meet Tom Lewis, a marine biologist, teacher, and ACS board member. Tom teaches in Long Beach, California, but this week he's teaching teachers, down with the whales. Here's a peek at Tom's log:

Tom Lewis in San Ignacio
Photo courtesy of Linda Lewis

"We board our chartered boat Searcher, a 95-foot sportfishing vessel, on Saturday and left the dock about 10:00 P.M. Our destination is Laguna San Ignacio, Baja California Sur, Mexico, one of the four primary breeding lagoons used by gray whales to mate and give birth to their young. I have been leading whale watching trips to San Ignacio Lagoon for thirteen years. On this trip I am the on-board instructor for a group of twenty four high school science teachers. The trip south takes two-and-one-half days, with stops at two offshore islands that are breeding grounds for northern elephant seals.

Mothers and Newborns
"We see very few gray whales on the trip south; most of the whales are already in the breeding lagoons. At a point about 5 miles outside the entrance to San Ignacio Lagoon, we see our first gray whale. As we approach closer, we begin to see more blows. When we get about 2 miles outside the entrance, blows from gray whales are everywhere, all around the boat. The whales outside the lagoon are mostly juveniles and mothers

with their newborn calves. At any one time, twenty to thirty whales are in our field of view.

Thar' She Blows! Challenge Question #4:
"What causes a whale's blow?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Inside the Lagoon

Newborn whale
Photo courtesy of Linda Lewis

"We can only enter the lagoon at high tide, or we would run aground. Because the lagoon entrance is shallow, it is guarded by a series of breaking waves. It takes years of experience for a boat captain to be able to weave the boat between the sandbars. As we pass through the entrance, waves are breaking on both sides of the boat. It is a very exciting experience for all the passengers, and me too! Gray whales are everywhere! Suddenly, a large mother and her baby swim within feet of our boat, stop for a moment, and swim on their way.

The Lagoon Ecosystem: A Natural Wonder
San Ignacio Lagoon is more than a breeding ground for gray whales. It's a rich ecosystem of several distinct habitats, which Tom describes in:

Gray Whale Nursery Lagoons
Photo Courtesy of Keith Jones

After a five-year controversy, Mexico's government vetoed a plan that would have allowed a salt production facility to be built in Laguna San Ignacio. Mexico's president acted in March, 2000 after receiving a million letters from concerned people all over the world who believed the proposed saltworks would disrupt the last untouched birthing grounds of the gray whale. The pristine San Ignacio Lagoon ecosystem is valued not only by gray whales, but by environmentalists everywhere.

As you think about why the salt in the water of Laguna San Ignacio was in demand for a salt production facility, see if you can answer:

Salt of the Earth
Challenge Question #5:
"What would the salt have been used for if a saltworks had been built at San Ignacio? Could YOU have ended up as a user of some of that salt?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Latest Highlights from the Gray Whale Observation Posts
Outside the lagoons, what's happening along the rest of the whale trail? The northbound migration is official! Susan Payne reports that February 14 was declared the official start of the northbound gray whale migration by The American Cetacean Society (ACS). The ACS census, located at Long's Point (33.74 N, -118.39 W), has now spotted northbound gray whales in the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary (34.40N, -119.69W)! They're northward bound in small numbers, but no cow/calf pairs among them yet. Lots of common dolphins and rainy, windy weather made it hard to see and count whales. But whales are still being seen in about equal numbers traveling both north and south. Some of Susan's observers call this a transition time in the migration. You'll see why when you look at today's migration data.

Farther north on the whale trail, seasonal resident gray whales (or whales just hanging out) are being seen from Washington to Kodiak, Alaska, but the homeward-bound whales haven't come that far. When will they arrive? It looks like whale-watchers have a longer wait this year. Read one prediction and what sea ice has to do with it in Susan's full report. You'll also read about the earlier-than-usual arrival of five familiar whales at Whidbey Island, plus brand new discoveries about humpback wintering grounds. For these and more highlights, see:

A Mouthful of Mud?
In Susan Payne's report, marine mammal specialist Kate Wynne describes gray whales in Ugak Bay that were "definitely bottom feeding, with mud plumes behind them." From San Ignacio Lagoon, our friend Kristin "Ellie" Kusic writes something similar:

"Yesterday morning we saw an adult female in about 8 feet of water. She appeared to be feeding, which is a rare occurrence in the lagoon. She would lunge on her left side into the sand with her pectoral fin and fluke out of the water. Then she'd turn over, take a breath, and push sediment out of her mouth. Maybe she was just practicing, or maybe she wanted a taste of some of the local seafood."

What was this whale "practicing" for? Why is it rare to see a whale feeding in the lagoons? Does a whale eat mud or sediment? Look for whale-feeding clues in these two eye-witness reports. Then do some research, and send us your answer to:

Challenge Question # 6:
"How do adult gray whales feed? When and where do they feed?"

(To respond to this question, please follow the instructions below.)

Response to Challenge Question #1

Last time we asked, "Why do you suppose whale milk contains 15 times more fat than cow's milk? About how much will a nursing calf weigh by the time it's two months old and begins the migration north?"

Whale milk (about 53% fat) is rich in fat to help calves gain weight fast. Calves need stored fat, or blubber, for warmth and energy on the migration north. A calf weighs about 2000 pounds at birth. If it gains about 60 pounds a day over 60 days (two months of age), a calf will weigh about 3,600 pounds when it migrates. During the swim north, the calf continues to nurse and grow.

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

The warm temperature, shallow depth, and limited access to the open sea make the Mexican lagoons the ideal places for these marine mammals to mate and to give birth. Keith Jones adds, "The shallow water and narrow entrances are not conditions that Orcas care for. The Orca uses speed when hunting and pursuing prey, and speed is hard to obtain in the extremely shallow lagoons. The gray whales have the advantage over the predator orcas when inside the lagoons!"

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 #4 (or #5 or #6).
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 March 8, 2000

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