Saturday, January 23, 2021

Gray Whale Unusual Mortality Event Update

Gray whale mother and calf. Drone photo from NOAA.
Gray whale mother and calf. Drone photo from NOAA.

In January 2019, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared a gray whale Unusual Mortality Event (UME) based on the large number of gray whales washing up along the west coast of North America from Mexico to Alaska.

UMEs require a higher level of communication and each month NOAA organizes a call for coordinators involved with the gray whale UME. The Port Townsend Marine Science Center is one of these groups.

On the call are representatives of organizations from California to Alaska and include updates from Mexican and Canadian colleagues. The information shared helps keep track of the migration and stranding patterns of the Northeast Pacific grays.

UME Update

As of Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, Mexico reported gray whales in the bays and lagoons where they go to birth, rear their young and mate. Southern California described animals transiting south along the shore at Palos Verde, south of Los Angeles. And Washington has one lone "Sounder" who swam in to feed along Whidbey Island. This one arrived earlier than usual.

For 2020, the number of stranded dead gray whales was lower than in 2019.

The Gray Whale Migration

Gray whales make one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling 10,000 - 12,000 miles round trip. They begin their northern migration in February, heading toward Alaska from birthing lagoons in Mexico.

Gray whale migration. NASA image, NOJO graphics.

March and April are a good time to look for gray whales along Washington's outer coast and for a subset, known as the Sounders, who wander into Puget Sound to feed on ghost shrimp and other bottom dwelling invertebrates along the shore of Whidbey Island and at the mouth of the Snohomish River near Everett.

Gray Whales and the Port Townsend Marine Science Center

The PTMSC has been involved with gray whale strandings a few times. Spirit, the skeleton used with school programs, landed on the shores between Cape George and McCurdy Point during the last gray whale UME declared in 1999.

Articulation of Spirit, in the Gray Whale class at PTMSC.

In May 2016, a gray whale died mid-shipping channel and was towed to Indian Island where we worked to sink it and retrieve the carcass months later.

And, in the spring of 2019 during the most recent UME, Gunther, a large male gray whale, washed ashore near Port Ludlow and was towed to decompose on a private beach in Port Hadlock (making international and local news in 2019 and regional news 2019 again in 2021).

You can find more information about the UME at:
2019-2021 Gray Whale Unusual Mortality Event along the West Coast and Alaska - NOAA
Wildlife officials in Washington seeking homes for rotting whales - King 5 News
A Beached Whale Needs Somewhere to Rot. How About Your Place? - New York Times

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