Gray Whale Numbers Up While Artic Ring Seals Suffer


Charmaine Coimbra

I celebrated my mid-December birthday with a hike along a Central California bluff.  The day was warm and eucalyptus blended with salt air invigorated  my soul.  When I finally reached trail’s end on a bluff that overlooks the Pacific Ocean, a California sea otter busily cracked open  its afternoon snack with a rock while raucous waves bounced it about the near shoreline.  Its antics entertained me and made me laugh out loud as brown pelicans soared just feet away.  I hoped to share joy with leaping dolphins but none were found.  Instead, I hollered, “Whale spouts at twelve o’clock.”

Gray Whale Spout. Photo by C. Coimbra

I thanked the three southbound gray whales for the special gift.  At the same time, it seemed a bit early to watch their migration, but as Neptune 911 reported earlier, a juvenile gray whale recently washed ashore dead near San Diego.

Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times noted,”Although the gray whale-watching season doesn’t typically start until the end of December, the unprecedented number of early arrivals is delighting tourists, boaters and divers as the animals travel south along the coast to Mexico.”

And the LA Times piece, written by Tony Barboza,  concurred my curiosity: “By this point in December last year, the observers had spotted 26 gray whales. The previous record was 133, spotted in 1996.”

In a SLO New Times editorial I wrote last year, I tracked the obstacle course each gray whale must swim its way through in order to reach its Mexican spawning grounds and then return to its Artic summertime feeding grounds.    At the same time, the California Gray Whale Coalition (CGWC) had petitioned the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (USNMFS) to list the species as depleted, and to spur a conservation plan.

USNMFS denied the petition about the time the gray whales began their return trip north.  Concurrent to the denied petition was CGWC’s CEO, Sue Arnold’s visit to Laguna San Ignacio.  She visited me days after her Laguna San Ignacio visit  and reported that the gray whale numbers were up

This happened on the same day as the Japan tsunami. Sue’s news landed  a mix of joy for the whales  while the reports from Japan brought me desperation for the people of Japan.

As the Japan disaster developed with the failure of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, a new, and even more deadly concern swept over us like a tsunami. 

Conjecture, concern, and hypothesis  jammed the environmental world with wonder as to how the released radiation from Fukushima would affect the Pacific Ocean and the life it harbors.  What I determined through the blogs, magazine articles and pod casts was, “We don’t know.  It’s a wait and see issue.”

Less than a year later, yesterday, December 28, 2011,  Reuters reported :  “Scores of ring seals have washed up on Alaska’s Arctic coastline since July, suffering or killed by a mysterious disease marked by bleeding lesions on the hind flippers, irritated skin around the nose and eyes and patchy hair loss on the animals’ fur coats. 

Biologists at first thought the seals were suffering from a virus, but they have so far been unable to identify one, and tests are now underway to find out if radiation is a factor…’There is concern expressed by some members of the local communities that there may be some relationship to the Fukushima nuclear reactor’s damage,’ ” said John Kelley, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Marine Science at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, in the report.

I’ll “wait and see” how this report resolves the ring seals’ issues.

Neptune911 was created to inform readers, in a plain manner, about the seas and how they are changing.  Our goal is to bring an understanding about what we do, regardless of where we live, affects this 71% of Planet Earth. 

The higher numbers of gray whales is wonderful news.  But as Sue Arnold noted in an email, “(In November) Dr. Kevin Arrigo at Stanford (University)… had just come back from the Arctic and showed  me a fifty fold increase in phytoplankton under the deep-sea ice, something they have never seen before.  So we know there’s some really weird stuff going on in the Arctic, but no one knows why or what the source of nutrients might be or whether it will last…The higher number of gray whales  are not unexpected after my meeting with Kevin.  But these kinds of flushes are always cause for concern. The flush can be followed by massive collapse, let’s hope this is a permanent state.”

Again, we wait and see, but jump for joy every time a gray whale passes by and salutes us with a tip of the fluke.

San Simeon Bluff. Photo by C. Coimbra


Categories: Condition of Oceans, nature, Thoughts

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

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