U.S. Department of Commerce


Date of this Version



Published in MARINE MAMMAL SCIENCE, 24(4): 864–880 (October 2008).


Counts of migrating whales depend on accurate sightings data. In this study, teams of shore-based observers independently tracked whale pods during the southbound migration of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) while a routine (“standard watch”) census was underway. A comparison of sighting records showed that time and location accuracy was limited to 45 s, 3◦ (magnetic) horizontally, and 0.0057◦ (0.2 reticles) vertically. Of 242 attempts to track whale groups, 72 failed, 120 were “good tracks,” and 83 qualified as “best tracks” because they had ≥8 sightings/pod, ≥16-min observation time, and unequivocal matches to sightings in the standard watch during uncompromised visibility. Between paired tracking teams, 39 attempts to conduct concurrent tracks resulted in 21 “good tracks” with complete agreement in 71% of the cases. Of 133 comparisons between trackers and the standard watch, 43% of the pod-size estimates were the same, but the standard watch overestimated 10% of the pods and underestimated 47%. Thus, according to results from tracking teams, pods recorded as size 1 by observers on the standard watch should be corrected by +0.6; pods of 2 by +0.5; pods of 3 by +0.8; and pods >3 (4–10) were overestimated and should be corrected by −0.6.