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How Storms - Even Solar Storms - May Affect Whales on Oregon / Washington Coast

Published 12/02/22 at 6:09 AM
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

How Storms - Even Solar Storms - May Affect Whales on Oregon / Washington Coast

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(Portland, Oregon) – The idea came to the fore in the early days of Oregon Coast Beach Connection: what happens to whales during big winter storms? Why do they disappear? Does it disturb them at all? Way back in 2007, the answer was kind'a hazy: in general storms don't affect whales off the Oregon coast or Washington coast too much. But it's more complex than that. (Gray whale and her calf at Seaside, courtesy Seaside Aquarium)

Indeed, researching it again there seems to be mounting evidence it can harsh their mellow to some degree. Then, however, comes a wild surprise: it turns out solar storms may affect them as well.

It's not often you get to mix astronomy with ocean biology.

In many ways, the answers to all this seem to remain much the same as in 2007, when Morris Grover was the head honcho at the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay. He's since retired, but the subsequent “research” largely backs up what he told Oregon Coast Beach Connection then. Most pointedly was the fact research on this has so far been quite elusive, even impossible to execute, because – simply – humans can't go dashing around the ocean during storms to track them. Indeed, neither can most of our technical gear.

How Storms - Even Solar Storms - May Affect Whales on Oregon / Washington Coast
Above photo Oregon Coast Beach Connection

Some scientists believe whales could be disoriented or even battered around a little by large waves, and sometimes enormous gusts could change their direction. They are by and large known for being OK when coming up for air in large swells. However, nothing is proven.

All this came about because of some of those humongous storms the Oregon coast and Washington coast had back in 2007, and the Whale Watching Center noted whales really disappeared. Grover said it was quite possible they were in the midst of migration anyway, so they just high-tailed through faster.

A second possibility was there were 26-foot swells in the Depoe Bay area, which could've adversely affected their main source of food: mysid shrimp. These and other food sources might have been scattered or spooked to stay deeper beneath the waves.

Gray whale, courtesy Oregon State Parks

“That may have caused the whales to move to another area that offered a better source,” he said at the time.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said much the same last year in a post: hurricanes really churn up seabeds and menace slower-moving creatures like turtles.

However: “Sharks, whales, and other large animals swiftly move to calmer waters, however, and, generally speaking, are not overly affected by hurricanes,” NOAA said.

Last year, OSU PhD student Lisa Hildebrand and postdoctoral scholar Samara Haver had found some evidence large storms affected whales in some ways, a bit furthering the possibility they preferred calmer oceans. Yet they were cautious to emphasize the lack of actual study even today.

Still the biggest factor for whale watching during storms and even after is one of perspectives for humans. As Grover put it then:

“Rough weather presents a visual whale watching problem,” Grover said. “A whale’s back or tail usually would only be visible about three to six feet above the water line. A four- to eight-foot wave would make them ‘invisible’ to watchers looking across the waves. Even the whale’s spout that could be as tall as 12 feet is usually blown sideways by the wind, making it only three to four feet tall. We have seen whales during storms, but that is usually when a swell pushes the whale up to where we can see it.”

On the more unusual side of this is solar storms tweaking with whales' ability to sense direction, and there was considerable – though anecdotal – evidence of solar storms coinciding with extreme strandings of some cetaceans, like whales and dolphins. There's still much work to even prove that whales on the Washington coast, Oregon coast or anywhere else are magnetoreceptive, meaning they can sense the Earth's magnetic field (like birds) for direction and migration.

However, Jesse Granger, a biophysicist at Duke University, has done considerable compilations of various studies and incidents, with some help from Lucianne Walkowicz of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. There were plenty of stats showing that large solar flare activity happened around plenty of stranding incidents (but not during). Yet the results of stranded gray whales – the big stars of the Oregon / Washington coast – pointed more to the radio frequency interference that solar flares can create. Stats there seemed to match up with days having a lot of that kind of activity, which suggests if whales have such magnetic “sensors” that biological mechanism is affected by radio interference and not the actual magnetic shifts themselves.

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