Rare Whale and Orcas Make It to Oregon Coast Waters
(Newport, Oregon) – One of the world's top whale researchers is keeping track of a genetically distinct and rare whale that has wandered from the waters of Russia to the Oregon coast recently. Meanwhile, some pods of Killer Whales have been spotted marauding around these waters as well (above: Flex photographed near Russia).
Flex is a 13-year-old, male western Pacific gray whale that was tagged in October by Hatfield Marine Science Center scientist Bruce Mate and his team, and since then he and other researchers have been keeping track of the whale’s movements via satellite.
He is only one of 130 western Pacific gray whales remaining in the world – the second-most threatened species of whales, with North Pacific Right whales being the most threatened.
Moving south from the Bering Sea down to British Columbia, Flex was pinpointed at 450 miles offshore in late January. Then the signal went dead.
“After four days, I thought, well this is it,” Mate said. He began to prepare a summary map of this whale project and was ready to announce to those funding it that the tag had probably fallen off or stopped working – as they do in such harsh weather.
Then a week ago, another message came in from the satellite tag and showed Flex was 25 miles offshore from Washington state.
“A few evenings ago he was about 20 miles north of where I live in Newport, Oregon, at Siletz Bay, and again he was about 20 to 25 kilometers offshore, moving south at an average speed of 6.6 kph,” Mate said.
With weather too chaotic to seek Flex out by boat, they sent a team out onto Highway 101 with a truck and a trailer with a boat on it. The group has been shadowing him along 101 and now into California. Mate said the whale should be in the Arcadia, California area at this time.
“When the weather calms down enough and he’s in proximity, they’ll be heading offshore to relocate him,” Mate said. “The weather’s been really bad with eight to ten-foot swells, wind at 25 knots and lots of white caps. Those are the kind of conditions where we don’t hear from him because the water washes across his back and knocks out the signal from the antenna for the satellite. And the trough between swells acts as a dampener for the signal. So when the weather settles down we ‘re hopeful these guys will be poised. They did go out of Gold Beach yesterday, but after three hours the weather forced them back.”
Researchers want to get to Flex to solve a variety of mysteries: to see if he’s with any other whales, photograph him and other possible companions, check the condition of the tag, and maybe discern if he came from a certain group of whales.
But it's like looking for a needle in a haystack.
“Even though we get locations, there's the delay in the signal, he’s traveling almost 100 miles a day, and he’s either really real close shore or out 16 kilometers,” Mate said. “Put it all together and we’ve got 1600 square miles to look through.”
Mate said not all marine mammals stay together for an extended time in a kind of social migration. Gray whales and other baleen whales operate independently of each other. It is the right time of year for him to join a migration – and he is heading south, as they do during migrations about now.
Exactly what he’s doing out there is a mystery, but they’re able to rule out a few things.
“When he’s moving 6.6 kph on average he’s not doing anything but being on the move,” Mate said. “If he’s foraging or looking for a mate his average swim speed would drop dramatically.”
Mate said he’s likely out so far from shore because of the foul weather, which usually pushes migrating animals out. Heavy swells bounce off headlands and rocky shorelines, go back out, and then reinforce the incoming waves when meeting those.
“It’s just easier,” Mate said.
Flex, however, has not been the only special guest in Oregon coast waters. A pod of Killer Whales from the Puget Sound area – called the J pod – was spotted February 3 by some off the coast.
Mate said these are fish eaters and don’t feed on other whales. There is the J pod, L pod and K pod that sometimes hit these waters – all from the southern Puget Sound area. Last year, all three pods were here for about two weeks.
“Although they’re called residents of the Puget Sound they move more widely than people thought in the past,” Mate said.
Larger numbers of Orcas are seen later in spring as some follow the Gray whales so they can chomp on the newborn baby whales.
Mate said no one is sure exactly what is happening with this pod of whales currently in the area as observations are scattered and come from fishermen or members of the public who happen to spot or photograph one. There is no official actually actively observing the Orcas, aside from the Whale Watch Center in Depoe Bay, which is always on the lookout for any whale.
Movements of Flex can be tracked here. The site is updated every Monday and is getting about 17,000 hits a week from all over the world.
More on Flex's story:
Oregon Scientists Surprised by Whale Being Tracked Near Russia You too can track the whale via satellite through the Hatfield
Orca photo courtesy Whale Watch Center
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