By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 4, 2005
Along the New Jersey coast in Cape May this summer, the whales are in hiding. One marine tour company has not spotted a humpback in weeks. They are now redirecting passengers' attention to the dolphins.
Each winter, though, whale watchers on the Pacific Coast have the opposite problem: They can't avoid getting jostled by the mammoth creatures, which outnumber the boats in Mexico's San Ignacio Lagoon during the Pacific gray whale's annual migration. And forget about staying drymdasblowhole spray drenches passengers like a garden hose.
"There were whales all over the place," says Warren Stortroen, 73, of St. Paul, Minn., who communed with the Pacific grays on an Earthwatch trip in January. "They would bump into our boats and come up alongside our boat, and we could pet them."
The difference in experiences, and numbers, boils down to the animal world's seasonal pilgrimage called migration. Many travel organizations -- including Earthwatch, which has volunteer vacations centered on migrating Pacific grays -- and wildlife organizations such as the National Audubon Society are bringing together vacationers and congregations of critters. And interest in migrations likely has been fueled by the surprise hit "March of the Penguins," a documentary that tracks the annual travails of Antarctica's emperor penguins.
Spontaneous wildlife viewing, in which you go to a park or the ocean at any time of the year and scour the land, sea or sky for full-time residents, can have iffy results. The creatures can be elusive or spread out. Bird-watchers can spot various species, but in single digits, while whale watchers joke that the mammals time their breaches around restroom breaks.
Yet during a species' migration, the wildlife viewing is fairly certain. The animals are on a tight schedule -- they cannot betray Mother Nature -- as they move in giant numbers to specific locations around the world: the Pacific grays in British Columbia and Baja California; the Jackson Hole elk in Wyoming's National Elk Refuge; the sandhill cranes at Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon, Neb.; the greater snow geese in Virginia's Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
"There are circumstances that Mother Nature has created to give travelers the most optimal wildlife viewing," says John Gibbons, spokesman for the National Zoo. "Whether we are talking about birds, animals, reptiles, insects or fish, one of the main motivations of migration is food." In other words: Follow that meal, even if it's thousands of miles from home.
Travel based on nature is an ever-widening niche, as more people try to connect with the outdoors and its wild inhabitants. According to the International Ecotourism Society ( http://www.ecotourism.org/ ), in 2002 about 13 percent of 18.6 million American travelers were ecotourists.
"If you want a spectacle, migration is the way to do it," says Greg Butler, director of bird conservation at the Audubon Society. "But it is weather-dependent."
To be sure, the Earth's creatures are fickle. Some shy from bad weather, others from low insect counts. They might linger a little longer at a particular pit stop or get detoured (or destroyed or devoured) by man-made obstacles or predators. But they need nourishment, and they know that when the seasons change and their food sources are about to become scarce, they must leave town. So they move north or south, east or west, to higher or lower elevations or, in the case of wildebeest, around in dizzying circles.
"You get to see such a large number of animals traveling and coexisting together," says Tony Rango, national outings director of the Sierra Club. "This is not a petting zoo. You are in their environment and interacting with them and seeing nature in its splendor."
The largest mammal migration is that of the Serengeti wildebeest, whose 1.5 million-strong herd tirelessly chases the African rainy season; the farthest trek is that of the Arctic tern, which flit from pole to pole, clocking 10,000 miles each way. But the sandhill cranes of the central flyway, with their Hepburnesque necks and statuesque frames, are equally majestic as they blanket Nebraskan fields and Platte River banks en route from Mexico, Texas and New Mexico and then on to Canada, Alaska and Siberia. To the west, more than 30,000 Pacific grays swim from Alaska to Mexico, hewing fairly close to the California shoreline. Monarch butterflies also follow the up-and-down route, though they are much more dispersed, alighting in Texas, California and Mexico.
Because of the sheer number of migratory animals and the involuntary pull of their inner clocks, travelers can easily walk right into a migratory pack. Kevin Smith of Crooked River Ranch, Ore., for example, only had to peer out his car window near Kearney, Neb., to see countless sandhill cranes during their spring migration. He observed thousands more from blinds set up at Rowe Sanctuary. "I watched the birds for hours until it was too dark to see," says Smith, 63, a retired building inspector who has been birding since age 12. "There was no ground not covered by cranes. My wife and I saw more cranes than a person has a right to see in a lifetime."
The sandhill cranes typically arrive in droves, their trumpeting calls filling the air like a high school marching band. They spend their days feeding in corn fields and strutting around like Don Juan, hoping to make a love match. Come nightfall, they flock to the river banks and settle into a comfortable sleeping stance atop skinny legs. For two weeks, this is their life in Nebraska: eat, sleep, flirt. Then, they're off.
To increase your odds of witnessing migrating wildlife, many nature organizations, environmental groups and hobbyists track the route and the migrants' progress. The University of Kansas's Monarch Watch, for one, has an online forum ( http://www.monarchwatch.org/ ) in which viewers post their sightings nationwide. (Things are hatching in the butterfly world: An observer from Baltimore spotted a caterpillar in his milkweed in July.) Also check the weather, since many animals and birds prefer to travel when the sun is out and the skies are blue. Birds, for example, wait for cold fronts to pass and are partial to tail winds. A hurricane can divert or delay a flight plan, and sometimes, if the elements are just right, they might skip over their usual landing zone and keep on flying.
Yet just like the rise and fall of the sun, migrating animals have no choice but to heed nature's call. So if you miss them on the way down, you can always see them on the way back. Or maybe catch them on both ends.
"I would do it again," says Stortroen of the Pacific gray whale migration, "but I want to see it from the other side, from British Columbia."
Even with a restroom break, he won't miss a thing.
For information on bird migrations, contact the National Audubon Society (212-979-3197,http://www.audubon.org) or the National Zoo's Migratory Bird Center (202-633-4800,http://www.nationalzoo.si.edu). For fish, birds and animals: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (800-344-WILD,http://www.fws.gov), National Parks Conversation Association (800-628-7275,http://www.npca.org) and World Wildlife Fund (202-293-4800,http://www.worldwildlife.org). For whales: Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society,http://www.wdcs.org. For African migrations: African Wildlife Foundation, 202-939-3333,http://www.awf.org.