Something is killing gray whales. Is it a sign of oceans in peril?

Gray whales are dying at alarming rates. A Times investigation of their migrations from Mexico to Alaska offers clues to what is causing this marine mystery.

8/5/2021 11:00:00 PM

In 2019, things got weird. Gray whales were arriving in Baja later than usual. Nearly a quarter seemed atypically skinny — with their blowholes sunken into their backs like deflated, skin-covered bowls — and their vertebrae protruding along their spines.

Gray whales are dying at alarming rates. A Times investigation of their migrations from Mexico to Alaska offers clues to what is causing this marine mystery.

— and their vertebrae protruding along their spines.They also noticed very few mother-calf pairs — a pattern seen in Baja 20 years ago, the last time there was a significant die-off of gray whales. It was a worrisome indication that something was wrong.

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As the whales started to leave the lagoons on their normal northern migration, they began to die.That month,    12 washed up, mostly along the coasts of Baja.By the end of February, another 21 had stranded, largely along the Mexican coastline.

Then the pace picked up.In March, 42 more died, this time along a coastal belt that stretched from Mexico to Washington.These included a young male in Long Beach Harbor, two young females on the beaches of Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, and a carcass found floating near an oil platform off the coast of Eureka — so decomposed that researchers couldn't identify the age or sex.

During April and May, as the whales migrated north, 74 more died, bringing the total to 149.On May 30, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced it was investigating the die-off as an “unusual mortality event.”And as the whales finally reached their Arctic feeding grounds, they began washing up in droves — a total of 214 by the end of the year.

As they were perishing in large numbers, the whales were also acting strangely.In spring 2019, dozens started appearing in San Francisco Bay — some lingering, some acting as if they were trying to feed. Although their presence delighted urban dwellers, it alarmed others, including Bill Keener, a whale expert at the Sausalito-based Marine Mammal Center, who has studied whales for years.

“It was amazing to see them here, so close ... but really concerning too,” he said. Like the researchers in Baja, he hadn’t seen anything like this since the last time hundreds of gray whales stranded, in 1999. During that period, which stretched through to 2000, 24 whales died in the bay.

Farther north, on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, a biologist for the Sun’aq Tribe started collecting reports documenting gray whales swimming far up coastal rivers, or rolling around in the shallow surf where the waves break. They were scooping up sand and sediment with their 8-foot-long jaws — sucking in the mud and creating craters along the ocean floor as they searched for sediment-dwelling amphipods, the small, shrimp-like creatures that are the whales’ food of choice.

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"Spy hopping" is a behavior exhibited by cetaceans, such as the gray whale above, and some sharks. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Sun’aq Natural Resource Director Matthew Van Daele was both thrilled and amazed to see the whales at such an intimate distance. But like Keener, it also left him feeling uneasy.

“It was crazy. They were right there. On the beach,” he recalled. “That’s not where they usually feed.”For the last two years, similar oddities have been reported along the whales’ migration route, including in Mexico’s San Ignacio Lagoon, where a Times team this February observed whales feeding along the shallow beaches.

“Weird,” said Daniel Aguilar, a guide at Antonio’s Ecotours and son of the proprietor, Antonio Aguilar. “They don’t usually do that kind of thing.”Deborah Fauquier, a veterinary medical officer for the National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, said the annual number of strandings along the west coast of North America has steadily decreased since 2019. However, the number of deaths is still abnormally high, with 172 in 2020 and 92 so far this year.

Fauquier said it’s daunting to figure out the cause of such a large mortality. Even determining the cause of a single whale’s death is a major undertaking, she added.Over the last three years, NOAA has reported that 268 of the whales it analyzed were discovered in a state of advanced decomposition, making it impossible to tell what happened. Other variables made it difficult to pinpoint a single cause of death. For instance, all whales are highly sensitive to unnatural ocean noises. Such noises — for instance, seismic air guns or revving outboard engines — could have driven startled or frightened whales into shipping lanes, where they then got hit.

Scott and Tree MercerScott Mercer, left, a whale biologist in New England, relocated to the Pacific Coast with his wife, Tree Mercer, right. During the pandemic, they spent nearly every day monitoring whales and recording data from a bluff near Point Arena Lighthouse in Mendocino County. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Along California’s northern coast, Scott and Tree Mercer have helped to fill the data void. For the last 15 months, the couple have taken a nearly daily excursion to the Mendocino Headlands in their minivan. Wearing matching blue windbreakers and carrying folding chairs and binoculars, they perch themselves on a bluff overlooking the crashing waves below, and scan the horizon for whales and other ocean life.

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They used to spend the summer in Maine, where they once lived full time — Scott as a marine biologist, who flew aerial surveys for the New England Aquarium and wrote three books about whales; Tree as a biology teacher.Mendocino HeadlandsGray whales can be seen from the Mendocino Headlands, where observers like Scott and Tree Mercer say they have observed gray whales year-round. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

In 2020, the pandemic anchored them in California — giving them more time to monitor the Northern California coastline.It wasn’t always easy getting out there; during spring 2020, sheriff’s deputies enforcing shelter-in-place rules regularly shooed away the couple. But they persevered, sometimes playing a little cat-and-mouse with the deputies.

And as spring turned to summer, they began to notice things they’d never before seen — or expected to see. They started seeing gray whales nearly every day of the year — not just during the migration. Was this behavior related to the die-off? Were these whales eschewing the migration to forage locally? Or, as Scott Mercer put it, “Are we seeing things that had just never been recorded and observed?”

Gray whales are far more abundant and less threatened than the right whales that are Mercer’s specialty. Still, the early stages of the West Coast die-off were unsettling.The two newcomers watched as the area’s kelp forests have progressively disappeared, and they documented the changed timing of the gray whales’ migration. Based on their data, the number of migrating whales had dropped from a high of roughly 1,100 in 2015 to a 2019 low of about 800.

But was it just some form of natural variation? Scientists note thatEschrichtius robustus— the scientific name for gray whales — have long shown themselves to be resilient, and adaptable.“They’re opportunistic feeders,” said Moore, the University of Washington biologist, noting that they feed throughout the ocean water column — from the sediment to the surface. “They don’t call them robustus for nothing.”

Back from the brink of extinctionGray whales were once found in oceans worldwide, with an estimated peak population along the eastern Pacific of roughly 26,000.Whale hunting history1700s-1800sAs whale hunting boomed in the 18th and 19th centuries, gray whales were spared the early slaughter. They lacked the kind of high-value blubber, bone and oil that nearly doomed their counterparts, such as sperm whales.

←→They undertook enormous journeys, and still do. In 2015, one radio-tagged female traveled from the Russian-held seas of Sakhalin Island (where a small population of western north Pacific gray whales still lives) to Mexico and back in 172 days, logging almost 14,000 miles — at that time, the longest recorded migration of any mammal.

In past centuries, other populations of grays were known tocomb the Atlantic coastlines: On the western side, they summered along Labrador, on the Canadian island of Newfoundland, and Greenland, swimming south to Florida for the winter; in the east, they congregated around Iceland and the Svalbard archipelago during the feeding months, traveling to the Mediterranean and North Africa for rest and relaxation.

A small population of roughly 200 still roams the western Pacific waters, from Russia’s Sakhalin Island, where ExxonMobil has a major development, south to the Korean Peninsula.San Ignacio BayMexico’s Baja Peninsula, including places like San Ignacio Lagoon, provide warm, shallow estuaries where gray whale mothers come each year to nurse their calves, as other adults arrive to mate. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

It didn’t take long for fishermen in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to begin noticing the return of these leviathans.“Initially, they were afraid of the whales,” said Pancho Mayoral, a tour boat operator and brother of Ranulfo Mayoral. “They’d hit their oars in the water if the whales came too near, or banged them on the side of the boats to frighten them away.”

Ranulfo MayoralRanulfo Mayoral is a guide with Pachico's Ecotours, one of the first whale tour businesses in San Ignacio Lagoon. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)Among Baja tour operators, legend has it that Pancho and Ranulfo’s father, Pachico Mayoral — then just a 31-year-old fisherman who lived with his five kids and his wife in San Ignacio Lagoon, 560 miles southeast of Tijuana — was the first to realize the whales were friendly.

Soon, he was taking a small number of intrepid tourists and researchers out to see them.Before long, his neighbors also saw a business opportunity. Together, they established a nascent ecotourism business — with visitors from across the world coming to interact with the

ballenas.A playful gray whale comes close to a boat of visitors and turns on his side to see. Whales are drawn to boats by the hum of their outboard motors, Baja guides say. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)In 1988, the Mexican government named the region a protected biosphere. In 1993, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Mexican government limits the number of boats allowed in the lagoon at any given time to 16, restricts the amount of time each boat can spend on the water and regulates fishing to certain times of the year.

Reaching San Ignacio Lagoon requires a five-hour, bumpy drive from the nearest city with a commercial airport, Loreto. In early 2020, just as the coronavirus was circulating the globe but shutdowns had not begun, scores of tourists were making the drive every day.

“Baaa-leee-naaa! Baaa-leee-naaa!” sang a Baja-based Italian tour guide, Giuliana, who was balancing precariously in a panga, in early March 2020. As she sang, Giuliana and her four guests scrambled from one side of the 15-foot boat to the other, reaching out to caress a curious, playful female gray whale and her calf.

Visitors interact with a gray whale and her mother in San Ignacio Lagoon. Some believe the whales are attracted to higher-pitched voices. (Video by Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)The tourists “come here and they touch them, and they start to cry. Or they break into song,” said Ranulfo Mayoral, who has watched tourists interact with whales for most of his life. “The people come here for this out-of-body, almost extraterrestrial experience. They go crazy.”

Yet in this part of Baja, like elsewhere worldwide, the pandemic has crushed many small tourism businesses — including the Mayorals’, which was closed in mid-March 2020 and has remained shuttered. During a visit in February this year, this typically bustling resort area resembled a ghost town, with empty cabanas and tumbleweeds blowing around the dirt roads.

Even so, the, a research team that has tracked the whales for 14 years in the lagoon, continued to collect data.In 2021, the researchers once again showed that gray whales had decreased in number andarrived roughly two weeks late.On a beach in the lagoon — one where tourists once stopped to eat prepacked lunches — a young male, newly dead, lay in the surf, his carcass snacked upon by a coterie of gulls and crabs, as a flock of vultures looked on.

A gantlet of ocean perilsThe lagoons of Baja have long served as gray whale sanctuaries, especially for younger ones at risk of attacks by orcas, their main predators. But as they journey up the coast to the Arctic’s northern Bering Sea and Chukchi Sea, they face an array of hazards beyond those they historically navigated.

Read more: Los Angeles Times »

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We're next. breaks this ol’ heart 😥 As if we needed another indication that we've f**ked our most precious natural resources, including our oceans, rivers, fresh water and air. Are we too late? Covid in the water wow Sad.......nobody really knew what is going on.... It's all your fault. Maybe micro-particulates of plastics... Maybe the heat.....

'Is it a sign of oceans in peril?' Ummmm, have you all been under a rock? There was a legit portal to hell in the Atlantic less than 3 months ago. Follow my blog for more updates maybe they just got old...

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Could be that they are boiling in water GlobalWarming Maybe from the 1.5 billion masks in the ocean.... hmmm idk maybe the ongoing warming and acidification of the oceans and massive coral reef die offs? truly a mystery Fukushima, ocean acidification...not hard to figure out. So dumb what’s killing whales how about sharks, turtles, general marine life, and coral

In peril. Wherever it is we thought we might be headed in the climate crisis, we are already there. Our government could not handle a pandemic, climate crisis, unification, or big business greed. It’s sort of depressing when u think about it, so let’s not. Force industries to invent an alternative to plastics right now.

Humans Look into the long term effects of the *Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster*

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Between the nuclear meltdowns, and other government bomb experiments in the waters I’m sure it has nothing to do with that though… Eating plastic isnt good I wouldn't eat anything from the ocean we polluted the fuck out of it. Death Stranding Uhm. Newsflash. Tht radioactive shit from fuckUshima didn’t just vanish. Maybe it affects the whales differently

Probably Orcas. Why don’t you run some articles on the corporations responsible and the governments that enable it? Real journalism or nah? We are literally killing ourselves and this planet. 😞 They probably need get a vaccine! Humans are basically viruses killing mother earth Have they figured out whether the commit 'suicide' or what? One hypothesis was that it was radar signals that interfered with their brains, is that true?

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It’s probably the fact that the oceans are polluted, navies just blow stuff up, and the food supply is depleted all these oil rigs in the ocean blowing up isn’t helping shit either All that DDT dumped off LA in the 80s? If only we could actually stop people from dumping shit into the ocean, or start holding these giant corporations accountable.

Probably all the chemicals and nuclear waste being out into the oceans Sad, so sad oceanprotection whalesprotection Hmmm maybe the Fukushima meltdown is the reason? The Oceans are in Peril with Oil Spills and People Throwing Garbage in the Ocean like it's a Huge Trash Can. We only get one World we need to Respect it and Care for it.

Rose Webster GetMyGist here. DLeBlancNB & 100s in medicine / science were notified by me 2016 - now. Wolbachia was mass released 2009 & 2016 beside Canada; toyed with 30 yrs, right TheAtlantic? My petition: Lawyers use EndangeredSpeciesAct? 😪😪😪

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Maybe it’s the trash we toss into the oceans? **just a hunch** Humans are the cause. Case solved. The beginning of the end for Earth as we have known it. Earth must be cleansed of all humans as soon as possible. I wonder if the japan nuclear meltdowns have anything to do with this Damn those are huge numbers and there aren't that many whale's left.

Japan dumping over 1 million tons of nuclear wastewater, contaminated by the 2011 fukushima nuclear disaster, into the ocean is also killing everything in the ocean. In addition to all other shitz we dump in there. We will all soon die from destroying this Earth. And we're next. Some people are really selfish. Would rather let a species go extinct. They don't want to pay more for sewage and garbage🙏😭😭. God. We are guilty. COVID-19 could be the beginning of the apocalypse.

💔💔💔💔 They are such beautiful and majestic creatures. Poor whales 🐋 ♥️

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Maybe its the toxic OIL from Sunken Ships RISk Oh I guess it can’t possibly be the radiation waters Japan is releasing into the water or the multiple oil spills. Or all the plastic floating around. Nope can’t be any of that. 🤦🏻‍♀️ wHaT iS iT? Make this into a podcast, people love true crime This is heartbreaking

One wild fucking guess.... It doesn't even matter what we do here we could be spotless with pollution, other countries are so much worse & could careless what happen to the ocean as long as they get theirs 😑🙄😒 It is a sign of humans lacking respect for nature. Ban all plastics by Executive Order immediately

What can we do? Oh no!! My favorite animal on earth, except for my doggies.

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Alarming!!!!! All the climate change talk ..... clean these oceans, lakes , rivers!!! It’s me. I’m killing the whales and the wales Of course the ef it is. But nobody would listen, and still won’t. We are in a period of huge change, and this generation and others will suffer, this isn’t grandparents 100years from now, anymore.

It could be a scary ghost that's living in the ocean.👻 I just watched a South park episode on this Water was LITERALLY on FIRE the other day. BILLIONS of mussels/clams SHRIVELED under blistering heat the other week. So if you’re still asking if the oceans are in peril… 🤦‍♀️🤦‍♀️🤦‍♀️ I know what, humans

What? Seriously! You don't know man is killing the entire planet earth? It's dumb greedy ass sick individuals blasting into space on their spacecraft also the incompetence on our seas drilling and spilling. No care at all for any life or humanity just Money Power Sex SAD! Did i win the prize for calculating?

Yea it's called humans

Can someone update me, are Conservatives still on the 'climate change isn't real' set of lies or have they progressed to the 'blame the people who warned you about it for decades' set of lies yet? Corporate pollution, and you know it. Why pretend it doesn't exist? The end is here and people will not repent. They are bowing down to the sins of this world and these animals are paying for it. Ask God for forgiveness

GODDAMMIT KOJIMA HUMANS - very obvious hahahah heartbreaking... surely it's bc of something WE are doing So glad this is being looked into. In no way meant to belittle the real problems being faced here - but doesn’t anyone remember Star Trek 4 - these babies are critical to saving our planet! 🙏🏻🙏🏻❤️❤️

Its me Maybe it's the pollution

😣 ham_hox I figure at least a third of these have to be mistaken identity when I go sunbathing at the beach. Damn Maybe after we kill all the whales, an alien probe will arrive and destroy humanity. Wait! That sounds like a good movie plot.