First gray whales spotted off Seward.

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A tour vessel has reported the first confirmed gray whale sighting in Alaska waters so far this season.

A cow and her calf were spotted south of Barwell Island off Cape Resurrection on Saturday by the crew of the tour vessel Alaskan Explorer.

The gray whales of the eastern North Pacific Ocean began their 5,000-mile spring commute from Mexico to the Chukchi Sea about a month ago.

An estimated 26,000 gray whales are expected to swim from the warm lagoons of the Baja California coast, where mating and calving take place, to their summer-fall feeding grounds in the Arctic seas, said Leslie Hines, an education coordinator with the Kenai Fjords tour company in Seward.

The sighting occurred right on time, on the first day of the company's Gray Whale Watch tours, Hines said.

''They saw the back of the animal. They got a good view and saw the blow,'' she said. ''They had excellent viewing conditions.''

The first pods, usually males and newly pregnant cows, begin their journey north in about mid-February. Adult females and young whales may leave next. Last to go are the mothers and their calves born from late December to early February.

Along the way, the whales hug the coast, getting as close as a mile and a half offshore.

The great bulk of the population will be off the coast of northwest Alaska by the end of June, said Dave Rugh, a wildlife biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Seattle.

The whales begin their return trip in October and are gone from the Arctic by late December, Rugh said.

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