WATCH: Years of hunting nearly wiped them out but grey whales have made a huge comeback. But the conservation success story has taken a turn, dozens of dead whales have been washing up on west coast beaches. Kori Sidaway tells us why. And a warning that images in this story may be disturbing to some viewers.
Grey whales can usually be spotted just off B.C.’s coastline in the springtime. But this year, increasing numbers of the gentle giants are being found dead.
“You can see depressions, here and here and here,” said Pacific Marine Mammal Coordinator Paul Cottrell, earlier this April, pointing to areas of missing blubber on a dead grey whale.
The grey whale was found emaciated and stranded on a North Saanich beach.
“This was likely one animal that didn’t have enough stores over the winter then the migration affected the animal further and it dropped out of the population,” said Cottrell.
A stand-alone event that’s puzzling, but scientists elsewhere say it’s a startling pattern that’s emerging.
“Here in Washington State we’re already up to 11 dead grey whales that have washed up,” said John Calambokidis, a research biologist with Cascadia Research Collective.
“The main cause of death we are seeing is starvation.”
The grey whales are undertaking their annual migration from their safe breeding grounds of Mexico, all the way past Alaska to the Bering Sea, where they gorge on Arctic krill.
The whales will not have eaten in four months, and it’s normal for some not make the journey. But these many deaths are anything but normal.
“There are almost record numbers off California and Oregon in addition to the animals that have come ashore in Washington State. We’re now approaching now more than 30 animals,” said Dr. Anna Hall, marine zoologist with Seaview Marine Sciences.
Those numbers already exceed last year’s entire grey whale death count. And scientists think it’s the usually nutrient-rich Arctic waters that may be the problem.
“When we see starving whales now what it really reflects is that they didn’t get enough to eat last year,” said Calambokidis.
For a species that’s just recently made a comeback from near extinction, scientists are concerned more whales will die.
“My guess is that we haven’t seen the end of this yet,” said Dr. Hall.
Scientists across the Pacific Northwest will work across jurisdictions to tally numbers after the grey whales complete their migration in June. Until then, anyone who sees a stranded grey whale is asked to report it to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.