The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting a count of this year’s migrating gray whale population.
It's one of the most epic migrations on the planet. Each winter, gray whales swim along the west coast from the Bering Sea to Baja Mexico, and back again in spring.
During last year’s migration there was a spike in gray whale deaths; 220 were found washed up on beaches along the route. That total is the highest since 2000.
This year the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is conducting a count of the migrating whales as part of their investigation into the die-off. Lead researcher Dave Weller is hoping to learn more about the cause.
"What will be useful for us to know is whether the population is continuing to increase as it has, or whether it’s declining. Really our objective is to stay on top of any population consequences and be able to track that.”
Specialized NOAA response teams will also be looking for signs of disease or other pathologies.
Another difference in this year's count is the use of new technologies to add new and valuable data to the effort. Dave Weller describes this new tool:
“We have a separate field station in which we fly small drones overhead to get photographs of mothers and calves, and from those photographs we can look at their body condition, and body condition often equates to nutrition status and health.”
There’s still time for whale-watchers to get a look at this year’s migration; it’s expected to continue for most of February. The last count in 2016 revealed the number of migrating gray whales to be the highest in the 50 years that counts have taken place. If you'd like to observe this year's migration, Dave Weller would like you to think carefully about your options.
“If you’re going to go out on a whale-watching boat you want to make sure that it’s a reputable company that follows the best practices. Go online and study some of the reviews, and study what their mission says about the way they operate. You'll be able to identify the operators that are working in the most responsible way.”