From Mexico to Alaska, a mysterious massacre among gray whales


No one yet dares to admit relief, but a dream of embellishment now inhabits American scientists specializing in cetaceans. After a catastrophic 2019, which saw 215 gray whales stranded on the Pacific coast, 144 sea giants perished this year between Mexico and Alaska.

“It is possible that we have taken the path to a more normal pace”, says Michael Milstein, spokesperson for the West Coast of the United States Agency for Ocean and Atmospheric Observation (NOAA), the federal agency responsible in particular for marine health. Associate researcher in marine biology at the University of California-Davis, Frances Gulland wants to be more careful. She knows that the figures for 2020 are still four times larger than those for a normal year. “We will hold our breath until next winter”, she admits.

The veterinarian does not lack, it is true, no safe. National Commissioner for Marine Mammals – “nominated by Obama”, she takes care to clarify with a smile – she observes, from the front row, all the sufferings endured by our cousins ​​of the seas. In the twenty-five years that she has been studying whales, she has carried out dozens of autopsies, published in the largest scientific journals, and led numerous working groups. In 1999-2000, it was she who coordinated, for NOAA, the investigation of the previous great wave of groundings, which had caused the death of more than 600 individuals in two years.

“We never really understood what happened, admits Frances Gulland. Many dead animals were emaciated without our being able to detect any particular diseases. So we thought it could be related to a heat wave and the disruption of the diet of whales in the Arctic, where they accumulate their reserves. At the same time, 25% of the deaths resulted from collisions with boats or entanglements in nets or anchorages. And then, thereafter, there were other warm years, without any particular increase in mortality… So a lot of hypotheses, few answers. And here we are again twenty years later, better trained, better equipped, but we still do not have the murder weapon. Just strong suspicions. “

A precedent in the XIXe century

To understand the nature of the current investigation, it is already important to identify the victim. With a weight of 20 to 30 tons, a size of some 15 meters, the gray whale remains far from the measurements of the immense blue whale (up to 30 meters and 170 tons). But, in terms of migration, it distances itself from all known sea creatures.

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