Researchers embark
on whale of a Pacific trip

SEATTLE >> Researchers were heading out to the North Pacific this weekend on a four-month mission to learn more about humpback whales and help boost populations decimated by more than a century of commercial whaling.

The voyage of the U.S. federal research ship McArthur II marks the kickoff of a three-year, $3 million multinational effort to count the number of humpbacks in the region.

"This is the largest whale project that has ever been attempted -- the most people and the biggest ocean," said Jay Barlow, chief scientist on the ship, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fleet.

Scientists and volunteers along the Pacific Rim were participating, including Japan, Russia, Mexico, Canada, the Philippines, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the U.S. coast. The project is bankrolled by the NOAA.

Humpbacks feed in northern waters over the summer and then head south in winter to breed off Hawaii, Japan, Mexico and Central America.

They are believed to make the longest migration of any mammal, as much as 5,000 miles one way, said John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research, who will be conducting counts from small boats along the West Coast.

That makes international cooperation essential, researchers said. Up to now, "we knew about each other's research," but there had been little formal collaboration, Calambokidis said.

Scientists believe the North Pacific population dropped to about 2,000 when California whaling stations were shut down in 1966. The huge mammals were hunted for their oil and for use as fertilizer and dog food.

They're now believed to number more than 10,000, Barlow said, and the population appears to be growing 6 percent to 8 percent a year. But humpbacks largely remain a mystery.

"We see so little of the humpback whale. ... All its life is conducted under water," Barlow said. And while 10,000 may sound like a lot of animals, spread over the vast Pacific, "they can be very difficult to find."


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