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Gray whale armada overtakes Kodiak

Doug O'Harra

Gray whales have now reached southern Alaska in force, with mom-and-calf pairs passing observation posts on Kodiak Island and whale watching cruises booking out of Seward, according to the latest update on the world’s longest mammal migration by the Journey North educational website.

Four grays were swimming outside Long Island on April 11, and a half dozen were passing Cape Chiniak on April 10, with the possibility of fin whales cavorting in the distance, reported the whale sighting blog operated each spring by the annual whale festival on Kodiak.

The 15th annual spring cetacean celebration began last weekend and lasts through April 24, with a schedule packed full of art shows, workshops, teacher training, research presentations, field trips and gatherings.

The urge to spot grays inspired whale lovers to report other sightings this spring and post them on the official gray whale blog

On March 27, someone observed a visit by three killer whales -- part of a well-known marine mammal eating group nicknamed the "Kodiak Killers" -- for their willingness to scarf down seals and sea lions inside Kodiak harbor in front of humans. "They put on a great show, spy-hopping and tail-slapping a few times."

More killer whales returned visited at least twice more, including this report from March 30.

"Five or six orcas were in the channel this evening for a while before they headed out toward Spruce Cape. There was at least one youngster with the group, making quick shallow dives."

The first grays were reported on March 20, but the season really kicks off with the whale fest, when people hit the beaches and headlands and begin filing reports to the blog and calling in sightings to KMXT. From Kodiak, the whales will continue down the Alaska Peninsula and enter the Bering Sea, with the possibility of new sightings as they prowl ever northward toward the Arctic.

Journey North follows the northward movement of American robinsmonarch butterflies, as well as a few other critters and plants, relying on volunteer spotters and school children for most of its dispatches. In the fall, the site tracks the annual retreat toward parts South as winter advances.

But following the eastern Pacific's gray whale migration may be the organization's marquee highlight, drawing on reports from Southern California to the Aleutian Chain.

Every year, thousands of the bottom-feeding gray whales travel from winter mating grounds in Baja California up the west coast of North America around 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 is the longest known annual migration by any mammal.

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. 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.

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