Gray whales continue to wash up dead and emaciated, but causes remain elusive – and possibly a whole lot harder to identify than we thought (Photo: Alisa Provenzano)
It wasn’t as many years ago as it might be, maybe even four or five years ago, that I sat in the back of a police car on my way to the scene of yet another tragedy befalling the world’s most magnificent mammal.
It was late June of 2010, and I was driving from the University of Guelph with a friend when she told me that she had seen dozens of dead or emaciated gray whales swimming near the mouth of the Niagara River. It was not the first time this year that she had seen them.
So, I’m in the police car. It was dark, it was overcast, and it was too late in the year to do anything about it. She was right. When she had passed us, she said, there had been an accumulation of dead whales, and there were more than a hundred of them. By the time we arrived, the whales were washing up on shore, along with a great deal of dead fish, and a lot of bloated dead seabirds.
I was sure they were dead whales before I stepped out of the car. As soon as I saw them, my heart sank, because I thought, I hope it’s not a polar bear. It was obvious to me that the animals they were seeing were gray whales—but there was something I’d never seen before that I wanted to see as badly as I did the dead gray whales. It was that, there were dead gray whales, and there were dead polar bears, but I wanted to find out what had made these dead gray whales so desperate in the first place.
The best place to look for answers was the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Marine Mammal Research Unit (MMRU), on the shores of Horseshoe Bay in southeastern Oregon. The unit had been established in 1991 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service following the deaths of dozens of gray whales after a huge ice storm had hit the Pacific Northwest. The storm had hit just as the unit was getting up and running. By the time I saw them, four years after the MMUR had been established, only two or three gray whales had been known to wash up on shore. A