- (ENN) -- The whales are late this year
and scientists can't figure out why.
- Some 24,000 gray whales migrate each
winter from their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to calving lagoons
off Mexico's Baja Peninsula. But as of Friday, not a whale had been sighted.
And it's already a week past the latest date recorded for the start of
the annual southward migration.
- "In the past, the whales have begun
to show up around the first of December -- certainly by the 10th,"
said Bruce Mate, an Oregon State University professor affiliated with Oregon
Sea Grant and one of the world's leading marine mammal experts. "We've
never seen a migration begin this late."
- For the first time since 1981, OSU researchers
are attempting to do an actual head count of whales passing the central
Oregon coast. From a perch in the tower of the Yaquina Head lighthouse
north of Newport, OSU research assistant Amy Poff has been watching daily
since late November.
- It took a while to notice the whales'
tardiness. Weather has been especially rough and stormy the first two weeks
of December, and it wasn't until early this week that things settled down
to what Mate calls "ideal whale-watching weather."
- But there were still no whales to be
seen. Mate's team even borrowed an airplane and flew up and down the coast
to 10 miles off shore; they failed to find a single gray whale.
- And now he's starting to get calls from
scientists in Washington and other Pacific states who've noticed the same
- Mate, who has been studying gray whales
for decades, probably knows as much as anyone about their habits. But even
he can't say what's keeping the big mammals from heading south. It points
out, he says, just how little science really knows about what goes on in
- "We had an El Niño last year,
but we don't know if that affected these animals. They're bottom feeders,
and there could be some change in the quantity or quality of the food they'd
normally find in the summer months in the Bering Sea -- we don't know.
- "There's a growing discussion about
a 'regime shift' in the productivity of the Bering Sea, and of decade-level
oscillations in ocean productivity, but all this is just speculation where
whales are concerned -- I don't think you could call it even an educated
- The late migration could have consequences
for pregnant females who normally would reach the warm, still lagoons of
Baja in plenty of time to bear their young. But just what those consequences
might be is anybody's guess. "We don't know whether the survival of
calves is any different if they're born in the lagoons or in the open sea,"
Mate said. "The data just isn't there."
- Mate fully expects the whales to start
showing up soon, and certainly in time for the annual Whale Watch Week,
Dec. 26-Jan. 2. He helped train more than 200 volunteers early this month
to explain the migration, whale biology and politics of whale conservation
to visitors at 30 whale-watching points the length of the Oregon coast.
- Meanwhile, Mate and his research assistant
will keep an eye out for the whales so they can begin to document this
year's migration and compare it to the 1979-81 survey.
- "I expect there will be plenty of
whales," Mate said. "I just wish I could tell you when."
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