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Gray whale armada returns to Alaska waters

Doug O'Harra
Merrill Gosho / NOAA photo

They exhaled heart-shaped blows visible for 1,000 yards across the green-hued sea. They rolled and they breached, waggled five-foot pectoral fins at the sky and sometimes seemed to cavort in Kodiak’s chilly surf.

The vanguard of the world’s greatest cetacean migration has overtaken Southcentral Alaska in earnest, with multiple sightings of gray whales snatched over the past weekend near Kodiak and Seward — as well as a few satellites placing forward scouts along the ice edge inside the Bering Sea.

“The monumental migration continues with high numbers and wonderful stories in this best-ever season!” reported the latest gray whale update by the educational website Journey North. “Adults are plowing past Alaska; moms and babies are streaming up the coast, some blowing bubbles!”

Kodiak whale watchers worked the beaches over the weekend, while tourists and locals took cruises to the mouth of Resurrection Bay to catch a glimpse of the gray armada as it passed.

“While many of the whales were offshore quite a bit, several were seen in the surf zone closer to shore,” reported the Kodiak Whale Fest Sightings blog, which included this Facebook movie of blows on the sea.

“The gray whales are here!” added Dee Buchanon, marketing director with the mother company of Kenai Fjords Tours, in an email message about last weekend’s cruises to the mouth of Resurrection Bay. “We also saw humpback whales. Sea lions, sea otters, Dall’s porpoise, eagles, cormorants, murre, mountain goats were also common sightings. Black oyster catchers and harbor seals have also been sighted, but not as frequently as the whales.”

The grays are one of the most commonly sighted large whales in coastal Alaska, 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 also inspired the new movie, Big Miracle. These baleen cetaceans 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.

Almost driven to extinction by 19th century whaling, the eastern Pacific population has since recovered and may number as many as 20,000 animals. Their 10,000-mile round-trip — which brings them to southern Alaska every April — may be the longest known annual migration by any mammal. Their range covers almost the entire west coast of North America.

When their seasonal jaunt overtakes Kodiak — perhaps half way through the extraordinary swim toward the Chukchi Sea — winter-weary islanders put on the 10-day Kodiak Whale Fest with films, lectures, performances, hikes, a shark dissection and guided trips to good whale watching spots. Activities run through Monday.

Kodiak whale watchers began reporting the first scouts more than two weeks ago, with migrants “playing in the surf” at Surfer Beach and traversing Ugak Strait, according to the Kodiak Whalefest sightings page. Early Sunday morning — the Whale Fest’s first weekend — another 10 grays were spied swimming through Ugak Strait and another 15 off Surfer Beach.

“It was during an extremely low tide and the whales were quite a distance from the shore, but viewing was great!,” reported one of the volunteer whale bloggers. “We spotted a few backs and even a flipper or two. … Later in the afternoon, there were reports of three orcas in the harbor area...doing what they normally do this time of year — pursuing sea lions.”

Western gray whale Varvara on the move

Among the gray whales making particularly dramatic moves was a 9-year-old female from the critically endangered population that summers in the far western Pacific Ocean. Nicknamed Varvara, the whale was one of six western grays tagged with tracking devices last summer, and the only one still transmitting. (Journey North offers its own Varvara primer.)

During March and April, Varvara cruised up the Pacific Northwest and Alaska coasts — skirting Southeast islands and the entrances to Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet along the way. Between April 1 and 8, the whale swam past Kayak Island southeast of Cordova, kissed the outer coast of Kodiak before swimming to False Pass on the Alaska Peninsula.

Then the animal zipped into the Bering Sea, and by April 22, Varvara had reached the ice edge and was cruising steadily west toward her mating grounds in the Russian Far East, according to the latest update by the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.

“We're excited, too, about Varvara. … She's still plowing northward, through chunks of floating ice,” reported Journey North update. “Go, Varvara!”

Tracking the signs of spring

Journey North follows the northward movement American Robins, monarch butterflies and a few other critters and plants, relying on volunteer spotters and school children for most updates. Tracking the eastern Pacific’s gray whale migration toward Alaska’s Arctic seas may be the organization’s marquee event, drawing on dispatches from Southern California to the Aleutian Chain.

Even as the forward wave of grays passed southern Alaska into the Bering Sea, Journey North continued to log detailed reports from the California coast.

“We've seen 87 cow/calf pairs — and a total of 417 adults and juveniles — since we began counting our 19th annual census on March 26,” reported biologist Wayne Perryman in the update for Point Piedras Blancas on April 23.

And an Earth Day report from Santa Barbara Channel:

“It was another Super Sunday: 27 northbound gray whales, including 13 calves,” posted Michael Smith of Gray Whales Count. “What a rush this has been. We have counted a lot of calves in a short period of time, and they have been almost charging through the Channel. No dilly-dallying for this crowd.”

Contact Doug at doug(at)alaskadispatch.com.