First migrating gray whales spotted near Seward
ODYSSEY: Giant sea mammals probably left winter waters in Mexico a month ago.

(Published: March 28, 2002) Anchorage Daily News

Daily News staff

SEWARD -- The gray whales of the eastern North Pacific Ocean began their 5,000-mile spring commute from Mexico to the Chukchi Sea about a month ago, and some have probably already entered the Bering Sea but Saturday was the first confirmed sighting off Alaska's coast this year, according to a spokeswoman for Kenai Fjords Tours in Seward. The crew of the tour vessel Alaskan Explorer spotted a cow and its second-year calf just south of Barwell Island off Cape Resurrection near Seward, said Leslie Hines, an education coordinator with the tour company. The sighting occurred right on time, on the first day of the company's Gray Whale Watch tours, Hines said.

"They saw the back of the animal. They got a good view and saw the blow," she said. "They had excellent viewing conditions."

An estimated 26,000 gray whales are expected to swim north from the warm lagoons of the Baja California coast, where mating and calving take place, to their summer-fall feeding grounds in the cold Arctic seas, Hines said. The first pods, usually males and newly pregnant cows, leave about mid-February. Adult females and young whales may leave next. Last to go are the mothers and their calves born from late December to early February, according to the online educational service, Journey North. The great bulk of the population will go the full 5,000 miles and be off the coast of northwest Alaska by the end of June, said Dave Rugh in Seattle, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. The whales begin the return trip in October and are gone from the Arctic by late December, Rugh said.

Adults swim about three to six miles an hour and cover almost 100 miles in a day, according to Journey North's Web site. Going south, the whales take an average of 55 days; northward they travel at a slightly slower speed. Along the way, they pretty much hug the coast, as close sometimes as a mile and a half offshore. The coastline may be an aid to navigation, says Journey North. Gray whales are bottom feeders. A gray whale eats by diving to the ocean floor, rolling on its side and sucking in jaws-full of mud, then expelling the dirty water as the baleen plates hanging from the roof of its mouth filter in tube worms and small crustaceans called amphipods.

In a single day, says Journey North, a gray whale may eat up to a ton of the shrimplike amphipods. Over several months in the Arctic seas, it will consume about 70 tons of food and gain as much as 30 percent of its body weight. It needs all that grub. "A 30-ton whale will expend so much energy on the migration to the Baja lagoons that it may lose fully eight tons of its blubber," Journey North says. The whales don't eat much in their breeding grounds, so they need to gorge in summer or risk an overall loss of body mass.

ON THE WEB Information about gray whales and their migration can be found on the Web site of Journey North, a free online educational service, at: