Mystery Behind Why 2,000 Gray Whales Died On The Same Coast Has Finally Been Solved

By Aleena in Science and Technology On 24th October 2023

Grey whales are like the ultimate travelers, going on a crazy 12,000-mile journey yearly. They head from their chill Arctic summer spot to the super comfy Mexican Baja Peninsula lagoons for the winter.

Back in 1986, gray whales made an incredible comeback from the edge of extinction thanks to a ban on commercial whaling by the International Whaling Commission.

Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

But things took a puzzling turn since then. Mysterious deaths among these sea mammals have left scientists scratching their heads.

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Since 2019, the Pacific coast has seen a troubling increase in dead gray whales washing up, and the cause remains a baffling mystery.

For years, marine researchers believed that the decline in gray whale numbers was due to their post-ban population increase, which had caused a new balance in the northern Pacific food chain. However, recent research points to a different story.

The strandings of these magnificent creatures, stretching from Mexico to Alaska, are now attributed to an 'unusual mortality event.'

This event may be linked to the shrinking Arctic ice, resulting in a decreased supply of the whales' preferred food, like scuds and shrimp.

Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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Essentially, the thousands of stranded whales in recent years likely perished due to starvation as their vital ecosystem dwindled beneath them.

The most recent wave of deaths has resulted in a significant drop in the gray whale population, declining from an estimated 27,000 in 2016 to just 14,500 in 2023, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported.

The latest insights into the causes behind the loss of around 2,000 gray whales in recent years were unveiled in a study published on Thursday, October 18th, in the journal Science.

Joshua Stewart, an assistant professor at the Marine Mammal Institute and lead author of the study, said in an Oregon State University press release: "These are extreme population swings that we did not expect to see in a large, long-lived species like gray whales.

Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

"When the availability of their prey in the Arctic is low, and the whales cannot reach their feeding areas because of sea ice, the gray whale population experiences rapid and major shocks."

He continued: "Even highly mobile, long-lived species such as gray whales are sensitive to climate change impacts. When there are sudden declines in the quality of prey, the population of gray whales is significantly affected."

Although gray whales may not be teetering on the edge of extinction like they once were, we should indeed prepare for the reality of a smaller gray whale population.

Conservation efforts will remain crucial to support and protect these magnificent creatures in the face of ongoing challenges.