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Whale mystery

Kathleen Willett, NORTH BAY BOHEMIAN
Walking Sonoma and Marin county beaches recently has yielded some unusual sights and smells.
According to officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 12 dead whales have washed up on Northern California beaches in the last three months, including two along the Sonoma County coast and one in Marin County. The carcass of a young gray whale showed up on Portuguese Beach on May 23, with another gray whale washing ashore near Jenner around May 28. In Marin, a headless whale came ashore on South Beach along the Point Reyes National Seashore on May 26.
Other than the fact that they are all whales, what do the carcasses share in common?
“There is no unifying factor,” says Mary Jane Schramm, spokeswoman for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
Marine scientists have identified four species among the dozen dead whales: orca, humpback, sperm and gray, which are commonly seen heading north along the coast this time of year. Their ages, along with their causes of death, have varied.
According to Schramm, one of the dead whales found in Pacifica was mature and possibly died of “old age,” given the condition and apparent wear on various body parts. Several others were young, possibly calves from the winter birthing season in Mexico, and may have been victims of predation by orcas.
One humpback was a victim of shipping traffic, while other whale carcasses have shown signs of possible “fishery interactions” such as net entanglements, which can mortally wound the immense animals.
In a typical year, one or two gray whale carcasses wash ashore. So what is different this year?
Read more at: Whale Mystery | News | North Bay Bohemian

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Dead gray whale washes up at Portuguese Beach


A series of dead whales has washed up on Northern California beaches over the past five weeks.

A dead, juvenile gray whale washed up on the Sonoma Coast this weekend at Portuguese Beach.
The 28-foot whale appeared to have been dead for some time and was in a state of obvious decomposition, according to California State Parks Ranger Damien Jones.
He said the carcass came ashore Friday night or Saturday morning. The Marine Mammal Center took a tissue sample in an attempt to determine cause of death, but it did not to appear to be from trauma, he said, such as being struck by a ship.
Jones said State Parks did not plan to remove the whale from the beach, which is about halfway between Jenner and Bodega Bay. He said the tide could carry it out to sea again.
“Generally we leave dead and sick animals where they are and let nature take its course,” he said.
May is the tail end of the gray whale northern migration from their breeding and birthing lagoons in Mexico back to their feeding grounds in Alaska. Although thousands of whales make the approximate 5,000-mile journey, including the newborn calves and their mothers, some of the cetaceans, especially juveniles, are believed to stay closer year-round to a more confined area.
Read more at: Dead whale washes up at Portuguese Beach in | The Press Democrat

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Gray whales make comeback off Sonoma Coast 


Bodega Head provides one of the best places on the Sonoma Coast to spot the whales as they come past Doran Beach, and around the mouth of the bay, just outside the surf line.

This year’s parade of gray whales along the California coast is one of the best in decades, continuing a remarkable comeback story for a species that was hunted to the brink of extinction and in more recent years experienced high death rates due to food scarcity.
Marine biologists say that at the moment, a population estimated at more than 20,000 gray whales appears to be healthy and reproducing well, as compared to the hundreds that washed up dead and the emaciated individuals that were observed 15 years ago as changing oceanographic conditions eliminated or modified their food supply.
“Right now, it’s a good story — a population that recovered and is doing well,” said Wayne Perryman, a federal marine biologist who has been studying gray whales for 22 years. “The animals look robust and healthy.”

Whale tour boat operators are reporting a banner year for sightings.

“This was the most impressive gray whale season that I’ve had in all my years,” said Capt. Rick Powers, a Bodega Bay skipper who has been conducting tours for 31 years.

 “We saw gray whales every single trip this season. It’s very unusual to go out every trip and bat a thousand,” he said of the trips he’s led so far this spring.

Despite the rosy picture, scientists are concerned the whales face continued peril from the unfolding effects of climate change. And advocates for the leviathans, such as the California Gray Whale Coalition, worry that a Washington state Indian tribe’s current proposal to resume traditional gray whale hunting could open the door for more widespread killing of grays, as well as humpbacks.

The gray whales, which spotters say make up 95 percent of the whales seen off the Sonoma Coast, face a host of challenges, from both man-made obstacles and natural predators, as they head toward their Arctic feeding grounds, where they gorge during the summer on tons of minuscule, shrimplike bottom-dwelling amphipods.

Read more via: Whales make comeback off Sonoma Coast | The Press Democrat

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Blue whale populations up off US coasts

Daniel Cressey, NATURE.COM

Blue whales along the US west coast seem to have recovered from decades of hunting, surprising researchers and regulators who had listed them as threatened.

The population of Balaenoptera musculus, the largest animal known to have ever existed, was devastated by whaling. In addition to the global whaling ban, the hunting of blue whales is now legally protected in the US amid widespread fears over the impact of collisions with ships on its long term survival.

The blue whale population in the eastern North Pacific is considered ‘depleted’ under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the species is listed as endangered on the definitive ‘red list’ curated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, as well as being included in the US Endangered Species Act.

But in a surprising finding published today in Marine Mammal Science, a team at the University of Washington in Seattle suggests that the current eastern North Pacific population of around 2,200 blue whales is probably at 97% of the size the ecosystem can actually support1.

via Blue whales back to their best off US coasts : Nature News & Comment.

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Top 5 places to watch whales in Sonoma County

Andrea Granahan, PRESS DEMOCRAT

Late March and early April are prime viewing months for the 30- to 40-ton California gray whales that migrate between Alaska and Mexico to feed, mate and give birth. They travel in a narrow 20-mile-wide corridor that hugs the coast and use points of land that jut out into the ocean as points of navigation, which makes them easy to spot from the westernmost points along our coast.

In late October, the first whales to leave the Arctic are the pregnant females who have been gestating for almost a year. They are in a hurry to get in the safe lagoons of Baja California to give birth. By December, the other adults follow on their mating run.

This time of year you can see the adults that have mated heading north to the Arctic to fatten up over the summer. At the same time, you can see juvenile whales under 5 heading south just to learn the migration route.

The last of the whales to make their way north are the mothers with calves, who travel in April and early May. Moms nurse their young seven to eight months with milk so rich it is about the consistency of toothpaste. Orcas are a very real danger to the gray whale, so mothers hug the shore, staying between the calves and the open sea. April and May are prime months for spotting them.

Read more for best places to watch.