Science & Technology



Whales are dying, but numbers are unknown. Coronavirus has stalled scientific field work

Susanne Rust and Rosanna Xia, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

As gray whales began their northern migration along the Pacific Coast earlier this month -- after a year of unusually heavy die-offs -- scientists were poised to watch, ready to collect information that could help them learn what was killing them.

The coronavirus outbreak, however, has largely upended that field work -- and that of incalculable other ecological studies nationwide.

A large network of marine biologists and volunteers in California normally spend this time of year keeping an eye on gray whales, documenting their numbers and counting strandings as the leviathans swim from Mexico to the Arctic.

Scott Mercer, who started Point Arena's Mendonoma Whale and Seal Study seven years ago, said the watch was called off last week, as he and his wife were told by a local sheriff to disperse and go home.

"I guess two people are now considered a public gathering," he said, with a wry chuckle.

In Los Angeles, Alisa Schulman-Janiger said she had to shut her survey down March 20, meaning this will be the first time in 37 years that data on the northern migration will not be complete.


"We had to," said Schulman-Janiger, director of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society. "We couldn't hazard anybody's health."

Up and down the West Coast and beyond, field research on a variety of endangered, threatened and migrating species has ground to a halt. Plovers? Abalone? They are on their own now, as scientists are forced to stay at home.

Schulman-Janiger said that before her work was called off, she had noticed an unusually early migration, with several skinny whales.

Even more alarming, she said, were observations of moms with very small calves -- baby whales that, to her eye, looked too small to be making a 5,000-mile trip north.


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