Federal scientists are buoyed after seeing an unprecedented number of gray whale calves this year in northern Alaska waters.
NOAA scientists contributing to the annual Aerial Surveys of Arctic Marine Mammals project say they've counted more than 50 calves in the first month of the survey. That compares to an average of nine counted each of the last three years. The survey extends into October.
Even though some of the calves may be repeat sightings, according to Julie Speegle, a public affairs officer with NOAA, the total number is far higher than normal.
Gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994. Today's population of the mammal popular with Pacific Ocean whale watchers is estimated at about 18,000.
The survey kicked off about a month ago in Barrow, Alaska, with other scientists working out of Deadhorse beginning mid-July. The study area is massive, extending from the Chukchi Sea into the Beaufort Sea.
"It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years," Speegle said. "Is this just a one-time thing, or does it continue?"
Scientists aim to document the distribution and abundance of bowhead, gray, right, and fin whales, belugas, and other marine mammals in areas of potential oil and natural gas exploration. Royal Dutch Shell plans to drill two well later this season in the area.