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A baby boom of Alaska's gray whales in warm, salty lagoons

Doug O'Harra

With no-holds-barred winter gripping coastal Alaska, delivering blizzard watches and ice alerts, it's time to check on some of Alaska's most determined summer residents. 

A cetacean armada has been wrapping up its annual 5,000-mile trip south from the Arctic, with hundreds of gray whales arriving off the coast of Baja California to complete another cycle of the world's longest marine mammal migration. 

"Gray whales are boogeying past the Pacific coast in record numbers to reach the warm waters of Mexico," reports the latest mid-winter update about whale migration, from the educational website Journey North. Observers from the Amercan Cetacean Society say they logged more southbound whales this December than ever before. 

Between Dec. 1 through Jan. 31, watchers from the ACS/LA gray whale census and behavior project at the cliff-side Point Vicente Interpretive Center have counted 550 grays on the move -- 545 swimming south and only five heading north. 

"Our first two gray whales came by at about 8 a.m.," observers reported Tuesday in the project's daily report. "They came very close to shore in two separate sightings that were about one hour apart; both fluked." 

Relying mostly on volunteer spotters and school children, Journey North posts dispatches about the southward and northward migrations by various North American critters and plants in response to the seasons, including American Robins and monarch butterflies. Following the progress of the eastern Pacific's gray whale migration may be the organization's marquee highlight, drawing on eyewitness reports from Mexico to the Aleutian Chain.

Just as alert observers might catch glimpses of pale, lotion-slathered human Alaskans tottering across subtropical beaches, Journey North watchers also regularly spy on Alaska's 35-ton summer denizens, offering insight into their behavior and health. 

"It's birthing time, and the best place for that is the warm, salty waters of Baja Mexico," says the "Baby Boom?" update from Journey North. "The lagoons are like bus stations, with whales coming and going all winter and early spring. New mothers nurture babies, while older whales are there for fun. As they return northward, we'll share sighting news from a network of observers."

The grays are baleen cetaceans that can grow up to 50 feet in length and 40 tons in weight on a diet of crustaceans and clams sifted from sea-bottom muck. Every year, thousands of the bottom-feeding gray whales travel from winter mating grounds up the west coast to the southern rim of Alaska, including the mouth of Resurrection Bay off Seward and road-accessible headlands on Kodiak Island.

Their final destination lies further west and north, in feeding areas of the Bering and Chukchi seas. Their 10,000-mile round-trip may be the longest known annual migration by any mammal.

Although nearly driven to extinction by 19th century whaling, the eastern Pacific population has since recovered and may number as many as 20,000 animals. (The western Pacific population remains critically endangered.)

They are one of the most commonly sighted large cetaceans in Alaska's Pacific waters, an element of Native lore and a mainstay of modern tourism. The 1988 rescue of three gray whales from sea ice off Alaska’s Arctic coast inspired the new movie, Big Miracle.

Contact Doug O'Harra at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com