Western Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) Mother and Calf Ecology Off Sakhalin Island
Sychenko, Olga Aleksandrovna
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The western population of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) is endangered with approximately 130 individuals remaining. Many individuals return annually to the same feeding sites off northeastern Sakhalin Island, indicating a site-specific dependence to this geographic area. This apparently critically important habitat is especially vital for nursing females and their calves, as female energetic requirements are increased during lactation, and calves need to be ready to separate and begin to feed on their own. This study focuses on movements, respirations and behavioral patterns of mother/calf pairs on their feeding ground, with data collected during summer-autumn of 2002-2009. Shore-based observations included three methods: theodolite tracking, focal-animal behavior sampling, and photo-identification. Whales were categorized as three groups of individuals: mother/calf pairs, weaned calves, and other individuals. Analyses were performed to assess differences between groups of individuals, and in relation to their behavior. The null hypothesis of the study was that there were no differences in movement/respiration/behavioral patterns and habitat use between different groups of individuals. Results did not support this hypothesis. Significant differences in movements and respirations were found for certain groups of individuals. These differences also varied in relation to the whales' behavioral activity (feeding, feeding/traveling, and traveling). The shore-based photography was used to obtain additional information on individuals (especially mother/calf pairs) and their sightings, as well as to evaluate the success of this approach. A total of 144 individuals, including 10 females (sighted with calves) and 31 calves were identified during 2004-2009. The shore-based photo-identification approach was successful, and due to being a non-invasive technique, is recommended as a supplemental approach to vessel-based photo-ID efforts. Reproductive success and survival of western gray whales are concern especially due to the presence of industrial activity in the area, as well as recently increased mortalities of female gray whales off Japan. Therefore, the results of this study indicate the importance of considering differences in needs and habitat utilization of different groups of individuals for basic science information as well as for management purposes of protection of western gray whales.