Orcas have been spotted in a calving lagoon for gray whales

A deadly new threat could be looming for gray whales – a species already suffering from a mysterious population decline.

For the first time in known history, orcas have been observed in the Mexican sanctuary of the grays: the warm, shallow lagoons of the Baja Peninsula, where these 40-plus foot leviathans calve, nurse and mate in peace. Until now, conservationists had viewed the area as a sanctuary from shipping, fishing gear and killer whales — the ocean’s top predator.

According to reports from researchers and local fishermen, Laguna San Ignacio has been visited twice by orcas this year.

A group surfaced and was videotaped in January when the orcas fatally attacked two resident bottlenose dolphins. They may also have killed a gray whale calf, although no body has ever been found to confirm this.

Cindy Hansen, educator and advocacy coordinator at Orca Network, a nonprofit based in Freeland, Wash., said a patch of skin and blubber was found, “but no genetics were done to get a positive ID.”

A gray whale calf and its mother (cow) swim near a boat in the San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California.

A gray whale calf and its mother (cow) swim near a boat in the San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California. Gray whales swim from Alaska to Baja California where they mate and give birth. The number of births has fallen dramatically.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Then, last week, another group of orcas swam into the lagoon. There were no gray whales this time – most were either in the Arctic, where they traditionally spend their summers feasting on small shrimp-like crustaceans they scavenge from the seabed, or just beginning their migration south along the North American coast. Gray whales usually inhabit the lagoon from late January and leave in mid-March or April.

It is not clear if the two orca pods consisted of the same individuals. While researchers were able to photograph and identify each orca in January, no research team was present to photograph the intrusion last week, said Steven Swartz, a primary investigator with the Laguna San Ignacio Ecosystem Science Project.

“Orcas are part of the normal fauna down there,” said Swartz, who lives in Maryland when he’s not studying whales in Baja. “They’re off the coast of the Baja coast and up and down the Gulf of California, so they’re no strangers to the area. What was odd was that we have never had true, verified, real-time sightings in gray whale breeding lagoons.”

He said that while a killer whale had never been documented in the lagoon before — going back to whaling records from the mid-1800s when San Francisco-based whaler Charles Melville Scammon and his crew slaughtered thousands of gray whales — it wasn’t the case surprising that these social and intelligent animals would find it.

“This is the second time we know of, although they may have come more often, but we never saw them,” he said. “Maybe they came in at night. We do not know it. Whether these guys just come in to look around and then leave or come back later, we don’t know.”

A trusting gray whale calf swims near a boat in the San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, in February 2021.

A trusting gray whale calf swims near a boat in the San Ignacio Lagoon, Baja California, in February 2021.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

Earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the number of gray whales resident in the eastern North Pacific has declined nearly 40% since its peak in 2016. Also, the number of calves born last year was the lowest it had been seen since they began keeping records.

“You know, every calf counts,” Swartz said. “As the population tries to recover… and calf numbers and reproduction rates have fallen, this could be a cause for concern. If the killer whales come during whale season and target gray whale calves, yes, that’s another blow to population recovery.”

In 2019, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an “unusual mortality event” after an alarming number of gray whales washed up on coasts from Mexico to Alaska. Then as now, the cause of the die-off remains elusive, but it appears something has drastically altered the food web of these large bottom-feeding whales.

Each year, gray whales migrate from the warm, sheltered lagoons of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula to the frigid waters of the Arctic and subarctic. They then return to Mexico, where they mate, give birth and nurse their calves.

It’s a 12,000-mile round-trip migration that takes whales past the busy coast of North America — through shipping lanes, around fishing vessels, near crowded and pushy tourist boats, and occasionally into the maws of hungry orcas.

“Killer whales have to make a living too,” Swartz said. “There is obviously concern for the gray whales because they are the region’s charismatic megafauna, with people coming from all corners to see the gray whales. But we also take care of the other wild animals.”

When asked why they suddenly appeared, neither Swartz nor Hansen seemed to have an answer; “Chance” seemed the most likely driver, Swartz said.

The San Ignacio Lagoon is part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, Latin America's largest protected area, established in 1988.

Laguna San Ignacio is part of the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, Latin America’s largest protected area, established in 1988.

(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times)

However, Swartz noted that both the gray whales’ behavior and the shallow lagoon could prevent the orcas from doing too much harm to the gray whales should they return while the giants are present.

“Gray whales can be extremely defensive and aggressive — especially when it’s a female and her calf is threatened,” he said, noting that like wolves, orca hunt in packs. “But in their world they have three dimensions. So they need relatively deep water to hunt large prey.”

Gerardo Freer, a caretaker at Antonio’s EcoTours in Laguna San Ignacio, heard about the sighting and said he thinks the killer whales are targeting a colony of sea lions that live on an island deep in the lagoon.

“We’ll see if the pod returns when the grays get here,” he said.

https://www.latimes.com/2022-10-21/orcas-have-been-spotted-in-a-calving-lagoon-for-gray-whales Orcas have been spotted in a calving lagoon for gray whales

Alley Einstein

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