Gray whale migration season in full swing


With gray whale watching season in full swing, Mexico’s National Commission for Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) is reporting nearly 1,400 individuals in its latest survey of two key lagoons off the coast of Baja California Sur where the giant sea mammals come to breed and bear their young.

In a statement this week, CONANP said its census counted 757 adults and 515 calves in Ojo de Liebre Lagoon. In the smaller San Ignacio Lagoon, the tally showed 67 adults and 26 calves.

The whales travel each year up to 12,500 miles between their summer feeding areas in the Chuckchi, Beaufort and northwestern Bering seas and their winter calving areas off the west coast of the Baja California peninsula. It is one of the longest annual migrations undertaken by any mammal.

The animals can measure up to 50 feet and weight up to 99,000 pounds, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Whale watching tours track their migration, and visitors to the Baja California Sur lagoons who board small boats are able to get close the whales, and even sometimes reach out to touch them.

Once nearly hunted to extinction, the species has rebounded, and its population currently is estimated at close to 26,000, said Wayne Perryman, a fisheries biologist with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.

“We think that the population is slowly increasing,” Perryman said, and its recovery has been an international environmental success story. “But it isn’t that they’re without threats,” he added.

Those threats can come from the increase in shipping and larger vessels, as well as the possibility of entanglement in fishing gear.

The whales’ Arctic habitat has been changing with global warming. “There is less and less ice, so the feeding season for whales has gotten longer,” Perryman said. “In the short term, they are doing very well, but we can only talk about this in the short term, because we don’t know where this dynamic is going,” he said.

For the past 25 years, scientists from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center have been monitoring the northbound migration of mothers and calves on the California coast at a point of land near San Simeon. “We start counting the first week of March, and we continue until the first week of June.”