Climate Change Alters Gray Whale Migration

Published on February 4th, 2010 | by

It’s the peak of gray whale southern migration off the central and southern coast of California. Between 20 to 30 whales an hour are being spotted in Monterey, but gray whales are also being spotted up north in Washington state months ahead of their typical migration schedule. According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, these Washington gray whales may not actually be migrators but “residents”.

Photo by Tomcio77Climate change alters grey whale migration
Climate change alters grey whale migration

The gray whale southern migration is better for whale watching, as the whales travel closer together than they do when traveling north, making current viewing spectacular.  San Diego’s North County Times explains:

You think it’s crowded on San Diego’s freeways? Imagine muscling your way down San Diego’s coastline among a sea of some 28,000 whales…

Each year, the California gray whales (also known as Pacific gray whales) —- averaging 45 feet in length and 45 tons in weight —- travel from the Bering Sea south to Baja California, where they breed and give birth in the cool, krill-packed lagoons near the Sea of Cortez before heading north again from mid-February through mid-April. The 12,000-mile round trip keeps the whales perpetually on the move, with them spending more than half of their lives in transit.

So why are some whales choosing not to migrate and spend the winter in Washington?  According to the Alison Barratt of the Monterey Bay Aquarium climate change is the cause.

Reports of “resident” gray whales are becoming more and more common up and down the coast. While not truly resident, some whales are spending time in Oregon and Washington waters, and then heading north again to the feeding grounds…

With arctic ice receding each year, the gray whales are able to go further north each summer. Traditional feeding grounds are no longer visited. It’s too soon to know if this is a good or bad thing for these animals.

Some experts disagree the whales are “residents” and believe the gray whales have begun their northern migration extremely early. Seattle PI reports:

“They seem to be coming earlier and staying later,” Howard Garrett of Orca Network, the mammal monitoring organization based in Greenbank, said this week…

Garrett said gray whales usually move south this time of year, but this one appears to be heading north, which may indicate “a major deviation” in their migratory pattern.

He said grays typically arrive in the area in late February or March, and the early arrivals may indicate that their food supply off Baja, Calif. may be dwindling due to warming water temperatures.

Whether the whales are “residents” or have seriously altered their migratory patterns, the species could be another “canary in the cage” for climate change.


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