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How Do El Nino and Weather Patterns Affect Whale Migration?

a whale swimming in a body of water

Have you ever wondered about the majesty of whales? These incredible mammals are like humans; they breathe air, have warm blood, and even have hair. You probably found them graceful and beautiful if you have ever seen them in the wild. If you visit the coasts, you may wonder about whale migration so you can plan the best time to see them.

What Is the Migration Pattern of Whales?

Like other migrating animals, whales follow their food. In the winter, they move south to find food, mate, and avoid predators of their young. They move south when they are ready to have their babies. In the warmer months, whales move north toward cooler waters, where they will find an abundance of food to build the blubber they lost during their time in warmer waters.

Some whales, including killer whales, follow their food exclusively, while others, such as humpback whales, have a definite pattern of migration. Sperm whales wander throughout the world’s oceans during their lifetimes and tend to be solitary. Finally, some whales, such as bowhead whales, stay in one place all year.

Gray whales spend the summer up near Alaska and the winter down in California and Mexico. They travel up to 7,000 miles during their migration period. Humpback whales travel from Alaska to Hawaii and down to Mexico as well. However, the weather patterns impact whale migration.

animal on the water

What Is El Nino?

Under normal conditions, the equator has trade winds that blow west, moving warm air to Asia from South America. As the winds remove the warmth from the water, the cooler water sinks, moving the warmer water toward the surface. When the trade winds weaken, the water pushes east instead of west. This phenomenon is El Nino.

The El Nino effect creates warmer Pacific Ocean waters. This warmth then adjusts the jet stream, causing it to move further south and creating a dryer climate. The climate also warms during these periods on the Pacific coast. However, the Gulf Coast of the U.S. becomes wetter during these El Nino periods.

underwater view of the earth from space

How Does El Nino Affect Marine Life?

Changing weather patterns significantly impact marine life, including whales. When the trade winds push the heat toward the west and the cooler water cycles upward, it brings nutrients and food from the deep water, including plankton, phytoplankton, fish, and other food sources.

Because the winds weaken and move in the opposite direction during El Nino, the ocean cycles only a little bit or not at all. This keeps the nutrients and food at the bottom of the sea, eliminating these sources. In addition, tropical species can begin moving north into waters they would not typically visit. Species like kelp tend to die off because they require cooler water to grow.

Does Weather Affect Their Migration?

Weather patterns directly affect marine life. Seasonal temperature changes cause food sources to move into more pleasing waters, which is why you see whales and other migratory animals, including birds, move south during the winter and north during the summer months. When the ocean warms, nutrients become depleted, e.g., the depletion of mangroves and coral reefs, impacting every species up the food chain.

a flock of seagulls flying over a body of water

What To Look For

You can easily observe ocean temperature changes. When warming occurs, such as during El Nino periods, you may find many dead animals on the land and in the water, including seals, sea lions, and other species. You will also see a reduction in whales and marine birds as they move to cooler areas where they can find food. Cooler temperatures lead to higher populations of marine species.

Watch how changing seasons and wind patterns impact marine life, especially whale migration.