By ZEKE BARLOW
Scripps Howard News Service
February 08, 2007
Mothers shepherding their young on their journey north will swim within 100 yards of shore, showing their newborns the route to the fertile feeding grounds of Alaska. Massive tails will fan the air, puffs of seawater will shoot out of blowholes and maybe even the grandest prize of them all will rise in front of the team of volunteers - a 30-ton gray whale breaching the water.
But not just yet.
There were no whales on the first day a team of volunteers was monitoring the great gray whale migration from a Goleta cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The only gray to be seen on Jan. 29 was the slate of the sky and the steely sheen of the calm ocean. Nary a waterspout nor the signature knuckle of a gray whale's back was seen, no matter how many times the volunteers scanned the horizon with binoculars and spotting scopes.
But soon the volunteers will mark clipboards, counting each of the hundreds of whales that pass within sight of the Coal Oil Point Reserve just north of the University of California-Santa Barbara campus. Their effort is part of the third annual gray whale northern migration count, a study not only of how many of the behemoth mammals use the Santa Barbara Channel - the route between the Channel Islands and Ventura and Santa Barbara counties - but also to understand what kind of effects humans are having on this annual journey, one of the longest migrations in the animal kingdom.
"If we can monitor impacts, we can learn a lot more about their populations," said Michael Smith, the project coordinator for Gray Whales Count.
Smith has enlisted 70 volunteers to help him count the gray whales as they head north through May. His group is funded by grants and will share the census numbers with the three other groups also counting the whales up and down the California coast.
Every fall, the whales leave the cold waters of Alaska, where they fatten on a buffet of crustaceans and shrimp. They cruise down the West Coast over the next few months, eating little on their journey. When they finally get to Mexican waters, the females calve their blubberless young in the warm, placid waters of bays such as San Ignacio and Bahia Magdalena. The mothers then take their babies back north in the springtime, usually hugging the coastline to stay away from the orcas that lurk in deeper waters. This is where Smith and his crew of volunteers and interns come into play.
Smith hopes the study will help create a baseline of information about how many gray whales use the channel so that any fluctuations in population can be noted. Last year, the group counted 633 gray whales swimming north, but Smith figured about 2,000 passed by when accounting for the ones he didn't see. The busiest time was in mid-March, when as many as 27 were spotted in one day.
The whales can be a harbinger of global environmental change. About a third of the population along the West Coast died off during a four-year period around 2000. Scientists think food-source depletion because of global warming in the Arctic might have had something to do with it.
Though the gray whale population is healthy now, anything can happen to lead to its decline. And Smith and crew will be there to document it.
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