Fall 2011

[News]

Wayward Whales Offer Students Rare Access

Whale and her cafe in the Klamath River The 45-foot gray whale and her calf wandered into the Klamath River in late June. Scientists still aren’t sure what caused the mother to stay in fresh water so long (Submitted Photo).

A GRAY WHALE THAT offered students a rare educational opportunity when it wandered into the Klamath River for nearly eight weeks this summer died in August after beaching itself on a sandbar.

Scientists still aren’t sure why the 45-foot whale and its calf strayed into fresh water or what caused the mother’s death. But the occurrence offered students in Humboldt State’s Marine Mammal Education and Research Program (MMERP) and lucky passers-by a unique opportunity to view the majestic creatures up-close.

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) immediately called Humboldt State Zoology Professor and MMERP Director Dawn Goley. Over the course of several weeks, Goley and her students worked closely with NOAA, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Yurok Tribe, which owns part of the river, to study the mammals and try to lure them back to salt water. The calf swam back out to sea on July 23.

Scientists still aren’t sure what caused the mother’s death but are hoping that tissue samples taken before her burial will point them in the right direction.

Gray whales are generally difficult to study in the wild because of their size—they can reach up 50 feet in length and weigh 36 tons—and because they migrate vast distances between their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic Ocean and their winter breeding grounds in Baja California. A small number of whales forego their full northern migration and feed along the coasts of the Pacific Northwest. Goley and her students have been studying whales that feed in the waters of Humboldt and Del Norte counties for 15 years. But never in a river and never up-close.

“While we are extremely sad that it ended this way for the whale, we can be grateful for the incredible educational experience it afforded us,” says Goley. “The students really came to not only know the gray whales, but the nature of the Klamath River and the Yurok who call the river home.”