Whar Be Whales?

by Marie Michelson

July 21, 2006

The following posting is from Carroll, who is onboard in the Bering Sea…

We woke this morning…yesterday morning at this point…to 10 foot seas and high winds.  They’d given the boat quite a lashing all night and continued to bounce us around for most of the day.  By dinner time, I was trying to make spaghetti while watching three pots of boiling water and sauce slide around the stovetop like a bad episode of I Love Lucy.  Needless to say, it wasn’t conducive to getting much writing done.  But as luck would have it, the weather calmed down sometime shortly after I finally went to bed.  I’m on night watch now, in the wee hours of the morning; and between glancing back and forth at the windows and the radar screens, thought I’d take advantage of the relative calm and quiet to catch you up on the days events.  Which, in a nutshell, I just did.

It may seem surprising that we can be out here for days on end without seeing humpbacks—or other whales for that matter. In these days of Animal Planet and whale watching tours, it’s easy to get the impression the ocean is teeming with whales. Fishermen often have the same impression about fish populations, and for a similar reason: people tend to focus their fishing efforts, or their watching efforts, on times and places when the animals are concentrated in a relatively small area. While this approach makes it much easier to hunt or see what you’re looking for, it can create a false sense about how much there is to be enjoyed, or taken.  It’s only when those animals are spread across the vast distances where they spend most of their lives that you can appreciate their true scarcity.

It’s like that with whales. In the southern hemisphere, where the majority of humpbacks are found, commercial whalers killed more than 200,000 humpbacks during the 20th Century, reducing the species to less than 10% of its original population. More than 28,000 humpbacks were killed in the North Pacific during the same period. Although the species has been slowly recovering, the current official estimate is that there are between 6000 and 8000 whales in the entire North Pacific—an area stretching from California to Japan, from Central America to the Bering Strait.  Spread out over millions of square miles of ocean, these numbers are still vanishingly small. 

If applied to the whole region, the 1999 sightings that brought us up here looking for humpbacks suggested there could be nearly 1200 humpbacks summering in the central Bering Sea.  But the sightings all occurred in a short time, in a small area, not scattered evenly around the sea.  Just as a whale watching tour off the Baja Coast might lead you to think there were hundreds of thousands of humpbacks in the Pacific, many people think the 1999 survey is a poor indicator of the abundance of humpbacks in the central Bering as a whole.  It is estimated that fewer than 400 humpbacks winter in the waters south of Japan.  If, in fact, it is those whales that are coming to St. Lawrence to feed, that might give us a better sense of how many whales are here.  And that’s why we’re here, of course.  To help make, or negate, that connection. Time will tell.

As I wrote this, the Southwest Cape of St. Lawrence has slowly slipped onto the radar, a collection of green blotches gradually transformed into a solid coastline.  The first land we’ve seen for days.  As we make the next turn in our transit, we’ll spend a few hours following the coast before heading back into deeper waters.  There’s a sea lion rookery near the Cape that makes the area a good candidate for killer whale work.  And maybe, just maybe, Here Be Whales.     

-Carroll 

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