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It's not hard to imagine the huge amount of tiny creatures these giant animals need to sustain them through a round-trip journey that takes about eight months and covers 12,000 miles. So, scientists postulated, starving whales in the spring of 1999 must mean they didn't eat very well in the summer of 1998.
Equally alarming, the birthrate of gray whale calves also has been abnormally low over the last few years. The number of calves counted by scientists during the spring -- when the small whales are still with their mothers on the journey north -- has dropped from about 1,400 in 1997 to about 250 in 2001.
In fact, calf production this year is the lowest recorded in eight years of monitoring, says Wayne Perryman, an NMFS biologist based in La Jolla, California, and the government's main specialist on calf birthrates.
That, too, is probably related to the food supply in the Bering Sea, he says. For the last few years, northern winters have been "very, very severe," Perryman says. Seasonal ice that covers the northern seas in winter has been slow to recede, and whales arrive to find their main feeding grounds still blocked or inaccessible. Perryman says the Bering and Chukchi seas have seen abnormally heavy seasonal ice in recent years.
That's made for a much shorter feeding time for gray whales. Pregnant whales "have to get fat in a short period of time," Perryman says. "Then they have to support the fetus, give birth and then lactate and feed a calf. It's really a very big deal."
He thinks the whales haven't been able to eat enough to sustain that incredible biological process. So when a pregnant whale realizes she's not getting fat, "she buys out of the pregnancy early on rather than when she has a big investment in it," he says, in essence miscarrying the fetus.
One reason Perryman is convinced the calf problem is centered on the female simply not carrying the fetus to term is because scientists have not seen a large number of dead calves in the lagoons or along the beaches, as they would if the babies were being born and then died for some other reason.
In recent years, Perryman has focused his research on female gray whales, believing that the condition of the females may tip scientists to future problems with the entire population.
So on the last couple of days in December and for a few days in January, Perryman will load high-tech camera gear on a twin-engine plane -- both of which he often borrows from pals in the military -- and fly over southbound gray whales as they pass the coast of northern California, near San Simeon. At an altitude of about 600 feet, the "photogrammetry" technique is capable of capturing snapshots of migrating whales as if they were lying still.
Length, width and shape of the whales is telling, and Perryman makes careful measurements from his photos. "As gray whales lose weight, the relationship between their length and width changes," he says. "They're shaped differently if they're pregnant, and near-term females are much wider."
Perryman says he has seen a change in the condition of the whales in the last three years -- a change for the worse because the whales are substantially skinnier. He is at work on a new scientific paper that moves beyond the increasing distinctions between fat and skinny whales, and looks at how skinny whales may be linked to calf production and ice conditions from 1997 to 2002. He concedes his ice-cover theory is just that -- a theory -- and hopes that someday various pieces of the puzzle will finally be thoroughly studied and the puzzle solved.
Perryman's work is a good example of the larger quandary facing scientists. The existing data suggests a serious problem, but the field research that would nail down the answer is still beyond their financial grasp.
"There is a very complex answer," he says. "I think we'll have enough information next year [before the IWC meeting] to have a good idea what's going on in the population. As far as having the entire picture wrapped up by next April, it's not going to happen."
Wayne Perryman's photogrammetry work has become one of the main components of NMFS' gray whale monitoring program. But the government pays nothing for the studies and Perryman has had to beg and borrow gear and aircraft in recent years to carry out the important research.
He's a personable guy, and the fact that he's a former naval officer helps when he needs to borrow a plane and the special camera gear from associates in the military.
"It's a real struggle," Perryman says. "I haven't been getting any money so I've been stealing a bit from other people."
Lack of cash for work considered as significant as Perryman's demonstrates a fundamental truth of how science gets done in the 21st century. There's simply no money for a species that is not on the edge of extinction or showing signs of slipping that way.
"The most critically endangered species where we could mitigate the cause of the decline is our highest priority," says Doug DeMaster, head of NMFS' National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle who oversees much of the funding.