NEWPORT, Ore. - Where are the gray whales?
The question has scientists scratching their heads as they keep an eye out for the first of some 24,000 gray whales which migrate each winter from their feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to calving lagoons off Mexico's Baja Peninsula.
As of late this week, not a whale had been sighted. And it's already a week past the latest date recorded for the start of the annual southward migration.
"In the past, the whales have begun to show up around the first of December - certainly by the 10th," said Bruce Mate, an Oregon State University professor affiliated with Oregon Sea Grant and one of the world's leading marine mammal experts. "We've never seen a migration begin this late."
One reason Mate and his colleagues have noticed how late the whales are this year is that they're watching for them. For the first time since 1981, OSU researchers are attempting to do an actual head count of whales passing the central Oregon coast. From a perch in the tower of the Yaquina Head lighthouse north of Newport, OSU research assistant Amy Poff has been watching daily since late November.
It took a while to notice the whales' tardiness. Weather has been especially rough and stormy the first two weeks of December, and it wasn't until early this week that things settled down to what Mate calls "ideal whale-watching weather."
But there were still no whales to be seen. Mate's team even borrowed an airplane and flew up and down the coast to 10 miles off shore; they failed to find a single gray whale.
And now he's starting to get calls from scientists in Washington and other Pacific states who've noticed the same phenomenon.
Mate, who has been studying gray whales for decades, probably knows as much as anyone about their habits. But even he can't say what's keeping the big mammals from heading south. It points out, he says, just how little science really knows about what goes on in the sea.
"We had an El Nino last year, but we don't know if that affected these animals. They're bottom feeders, and there could be some change in the quantity or quality of the food they'd normally find in the summer months in the Bering Sea - we don't know.
"There's a growing discussion about a 'regime shift' in the productivity of the Bering Sea, and of decade-level oscillations in ocean productivity, but all this is just speculation where whales are concerned - I don't think you could call it even an educated guess."
The late migration could have consequences for pregnant females who normally would reach the warm, still lagoons of Baja in plenty of time to bear their young. But just what those consequences might be is anybody's guess. "We don't know whether the survival of calves is any different if they're born in the lagoons or in the open sea," Mate said. "The data just isn't there."
Mate fully expects the whales to start showing up soon, and certainly in time for the annual Whale Watch Week, Dec. 26-Jan. 2. He helped train more than 200 volunteers early this month to explain the migration, whale biology, and event he politics of whale conservation to visitors at 30 whale-watching points the length of the Oregon coast.
Meanwhile, Mate and his research assistant will keep an eye out for the whales so they can begin to document this year's migration and compare it to the 1979-81 survey.
"I expect there will be plenty of whales," Mate said. "I just wish I could tell you when."