Killeen whales have found a way to get to the Baja Peninsula

Killeen whales have found a way to get to the Baja Peninsula

New peril for gray whale survival? Predatory orcas spotted in Baja calving lagoon

Karen C. Loehr, Kari Loehr, Robert F. Killeen

Mar. 20, 2015

Baja researchers suspect that killer whales have found a way to get to the Baja Peninsula, a place they’ve never been before.

While Baja’s sea-turtle population is flourishing, gray whales are becoming increasingly endangered by overfishing, invasive animals, and the threat of climate change-induced sea level rise.

In November 2014, researchers working on the Baja de Kino study noted that the annual number of krill in the lagoon had dramatically increased.

Now the same group has detected an increase in the number of pinnipeds, or sea cows, in the lagoon. This could pose a new threat — for gray whales.

“This has never been reported before in the lagoon,” said Kari Loehr, program coordinator with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “We suspect that these might be killer whale pods trying to sneak into the lagoon. We certainly don’t know that and will have to wait for the next tagging survey to determine what this is and what their motivation might be.”

The new data come from an 18-year research program called Baja de Kino. The lagoon was created in 1969 to protect the region’s fragile marine ecosystem.

NOAA scientists, led by Loehr, are taking an increasingly proactive approach to the study this season, as they search for gray whales and pinnipeds. They’ve been conducting seasonal surveys on the west end of the Baja peninsula since June and are expecting to conduct a new survey this week by boat.

The pinnipeds (lionfish, sea lions, sea otters, harbor seals) are more common in the west end, Loehr said, but the gray whales spend far more time on the east coast.

“The gray whale population [that] lives along the Baja peninsula is still very small,” Loehr said, adding that, although they may not be breeding yet, the whales are still maturing. Loehr expects that numbers will continue to fall as they age.

“I can tell you that gray whales are extremely vulnerable to overfishing, bycatch, and climate

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