Fish Talk: Kusko Whale Could Have Been Seeking Food

Aug 3, 2017

The gray whale that swam up the Kuskokwim River and was hunted by locals last week may have been searching for new food sources, according to Oregon-based scientist Carrie Newell.
Credit Katie Basile / KYUK

Climate change may be responsible for pushing Alaska’s gray whales up into estuaries and rivers like the Kuskokwim.

Oregon-based whale biologist Dr. Carrie Newell says that gray whales spend six months of the year in Alaskan waters feeding. They dig into the muddy bottoms of the North Pacific, the Bering Sea, and the Arctic Ocean looking for tiny shelled creatures known as amphipods.

“They are about a half-inch to an inch long,” she said. "The grays need to eat about a ton of those a day."

Alaskan waters have warmed significantly with climate change, and one result is fewer of these cold-water loving crustaceans to feed gray whales, which sends the inquisitive whales into new habitats looking for food. This could be the reason why the whale swam 60 miles up the Kuskokwim.

“I know that up in Alaska, the gray whales are not doing nearly as well as they are down here for food," said Newell. "And so it was maybe trying to look for a new source of food, because the food, the amphipods they primarily have fed on in Alaska, have not been doing as well as they have in the past.”

In other words, the whale may have been hungry. She says that it was probably a male and that at 37 feet; it probably weighed 37 tons.

Most of the East Pacific gray whales spend their summers in Alaska eating and their winters in Mexico, breeding and calving off of the Baja Peninsula.