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Puzzling deaths of gray whales off California coast probed
SAN FRANCISCO (CNN) -- Nearly a dozen gray whales have mysteriously died and floated ashore in San Francisco Bay over the past three weeks. By the time the eleventh washed up dead at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge, researchers were scratching their heads.
Last year, starvation was blamed for most of the 270 deaths of gray whales along their migration route. This year the whales seem to have a bit more blubber on them.
"Although we've had a few animals that were very, very thin, we've had even more animals that were in very good body shape, which probably indicates there is more to it than just a nutritional problem," said Martin Haulena of the Marine Mammal Center.
The gray whale population, once endangered, rebounded from 15,000 to 26,000 over the last 20 years.
The increasing numbers create more pressure on the food supply, which some scientists say may have dwindled as a result of the warm waters of El Nino.
7,000 mile migration
With the mammals on a 7,000 mile round trip migration from Alaska to Mexico, researchers still believe starvation is still the strongest theory.
"They're traveling this long distance; they don't have enough to eat -- now they've got to travel south to breed with low body reserves," said University of California-Santa Cruz emeritus professor of biology Burney J. Le Boeuf.
Finding answers becomes a problem when most of the whales wash ashore badly decomposed and difficult to autopsy.
"There might be a whole bunch of different things going on," Haulena said. "In past years, we've seen a pneumonia, we've seen a brain infection and encephalitis."
65 sightings of live whales
Oceanic Society researcher Caitlyn Toropova is looking for live gray whales. This year there have been 65 sightings, more than three times the number seen last year.
Toropova said her counting is aimed at helping "figure out what's going on with the live whales in the bay, to give some insight into what's happening with the ones that are washing up dead."
Scientists also see the irony that this once endangered species now may be suffering from the effects of overpopulation.
Ocean graveyards tell whales of stories
Oceanic Society and Oceanic Society Expeditions of San Francisco, CA. 2000
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