The Great Migration of 22,000 Eastern North Pacific gray whales is well underway, and the first of these epic travelers are already showing up in the Sound and Straits of Washington and British Columbia.
Pacific Whale Watch Association (PWWA) crews are gearing up for an earlier-than-expected gray whale watch season.
As spring approaches, these majestic creatures, which can reach 50 feet and 40 tons, begin a journey of between 5,000 and 6,800 miles from the warm-water calving lagoons in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and Gulf of California to the Bering and Chukchi Seas of Alaska, traveling constantly at about five knots and averaging 75 miles per day. It’s the longest migration of any mammal on Earth.
“This northern migration has been extraordinary,” explains Shari Tarantino, President of Seattle-based Orca Conservancy, who’s currently in northern California working with The Center for Whale Research and other research groups in tracking Southern Resident orcas off the coast. “We’ve seen record numbers of grays making their way north, and we’ve been documenting some spectacular and very unexpected behavior from them. Not long ago we had three or four juvenile grays playing in the kelp within a cove next to the Point Arena Lighthouse. They must have missed the memo as they hung around for a couple of days, rolling around, spyhopping, pec slapping, and actually playing around in the waves along the shore. We counted 35 grays on that day alone, with groups of six-to-eight traveling together. Really unusual. We’re also seeing a large number of transient orcas stalking the grays, so those juveniles might want to pick up the pace.”
“We’ve been anticipating an early and busy gray whale watch this season, based on these reports from our friends in California,” explains Michael Harris, Executive Director of PWWA. “And if these grays are as boisterous as they’ve been down south, it could make for some spectacular viewing up here. We’re fortunate that we get about a dozen gray whales who hang out each spring for long periods of time feeding on ghost shrimp – what we call “residents” – but from the sound of things, we should be getting a lot of migratory whales in here, too. And maybe some hungry orcas following them in. One of our whale watch captains witnessed orcas hunting grays in the Sound about four years ago, but it’s extremely rare to have that kind of action happen here. Hold onto your hat.”