Giants are passing by the Oregon Coast right now: Gray whales migrating north, heading to the Bering Sea from calving grounds in Baja California, Mexico.
After several years of seeing “skinny” gray whales — whales apparently not finding enough food en route — and varied improvement since amid shifting ocean conditions, researchers have been concerned about issues in the massive animals’ food chain.
Leigh Torres, an associate professor with Oregon State University and part of Oregon Sea Grant Extension, leads a team in field work along the Oregon Coast each summer to collect important data on gray whales.
Last year, whales were few and far between, she said. Torres is hoping to see more and healthier whales this year. Some of the underfed whales they spotted in years past have not recovered to where researchers think they should be.
“So we’re hoping that they show up in relatively good body condition and gain weight throughout the summer,” she said.
Gray Whales are the most commonly sighted whale species on the West Coast and were the first marine mammals to be recovered through the Federal Endangered Species Act, according to the state. Though they are no longer listed as endangered, they still face a number of threats including boat collisions, entanglement with fishing gear and other disturbances such as climate change.
The information Torres and her team collects informs not only ongoing research into gray whales but also discussions about the overlap between humpback and blue whales and fishing activities.
Oregon celebrates two different gray whale watching weeks each year: one in the spring and one in the winter. In pre-pandemic times, these weeks brought trained volunteers to coastal lookouts to help visitors spot and identify gray whales.
This year, Oregon State Parks will bring back a popular whale watching livestream, available on the Oregon State Parks YouTube channel beginning on March 21 from 10 a.m to 2 p.m. daily through March 25. The Whale Watch Center in Depoe Bay has been closed throughout the COVIFD-19 pandemic. It will reopen to visitors in late spring.
As people head to overlooks and viewpoints to watch gray whales pass by, Torres hopes they keep several things in mind.
“Everybody’s connected to the ocean with the day-to-day actions we do,” she said.
One of the main way whales can be impacted is through people’s shopping choices.
“When we buy things that come from China, they all come on a boat and that boat makes a lot of noise and has ship strikes to the whales,” Torres said. “We are more connected than we realize.”
Last year, Torres and her team, GEMM Lab, launched the website IndividuWhale.com, identifying individual gray whales and providing detailed profiles of each whale.