NOAA Studies Gray Whales Off Oregon Coast

Sometimes it can seem as though the sea off the coast of Oregon is just one more region of the state, like the eastern desert, the Willamette Valley and the Cascades. One more part of Oregon for use to make money off of with our fishing boats, enjoy in our sailboats, explore with the scientific expeditions of OSU and the U of O. At other times, we get a reminder that we still know less about what’s really going on five miles out to sea and 200 feet down than we do about the surface of Mars. 

Since 1967, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been studying the subspecies of Gray Whales that live nomadically in the eastern region of the Northern Pacific, which includes the Oregon Coast, and are commonly called Eastern Northern Pacific Gray Whales, or ENP. It’s not all that easy to study them, since they are immense animals who live in an immense volume that humans can’t travel into without spending an enormous amount of money. Instead, almost all study of them is done by travelling over the surface of the ocean, peeping at them when they come to the surface, and making estimates about how many of them they are and how healthy they are. 

By watching whales passing by the coast, and by following migrating pods in boats, cetologists have been able to estimate ENP Gray Whale populations, at least well enough to conclude that their population rose from 1967 to the present three times – most recently in 2015, followed by a drop each time. During those years, there were also several Unusual Mortality Events in which whales washed up dead on beaches, were discovered floating in mid-ocean, or beached themselves alive and died soon after, something which happens for reasons which are still not understood. The number of “UME” deaths don’t appear to increase during the periods of population decline, so they are probably not connected to whatever causes the fluctuation in whale population. 

Even though populations have been shown to change, and were recently quite high, cetologists are still concerned about the current drop in population because climate change is taking place very rapidly and severely right now. The population may drop more, and more steeply, and may not be able to recover as rapidly, as might be expected from past observations. Only time will tell.  

By: John M. Burt