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Spring has sprung: Gray whales begin Alaska migration

Doug O'Harra

The annual North Pacific gray whale migration has just now begun to morph from its wintertime Baja-bound mode back into the spring surge North to Alaska, according to the latest dispatch posted on the educational website Journey North.

"We are right in the middle of our migration turnaround, with gray whales going in both directions,” says American Cetacean Society director Alisa Schulman-Janiger. “February 10 was the first date that we saw more northbound grays than southbounders. However, on February 11 we had mostly southbound grays; this  flip-flopping is to be expected throughout the next week during this turnaround time as the southbound migration tails off and the northbound migration picks up."

Every year, thousands of the bottom-feeding gray whales travel up the west coast of North America around the southern rim of Alaska toward the Arctic feeding grounds of the Bering and Chukchi seas. Their 10,000-mile round-trip may be the longest known annual migration by any mammal.

Although nearly driven to extinction by 19th century whaling, the eastern Pacific population has since recovered and may number as many as 20,000 animals. (The western Pacific population  remains critically endangered.) They are one of the most commonly sighted large cetaceans in Alaska’s Pacific waters, an element of Native lore and an angle for modern tourism. The 1988 “rescue” of three gray whales from sea ice off Alaska’s Arctic coast inspired the new movie, Big Miracle.

For field reports, photos, animations, teaching ideas and graphic illustrations about what may be the world’s grandest migration by any marine mammal, check out the latest Gray Whale Update.