Gray whales are starving to death in alarming numbers off the West Coast—and researchers aren't entirely sure why. So far this year, at least 53 dead gray whales have washed up on shores from San Diego to Washington state, a number only rivaled by a die-off in 1999 and 2000, USA Today reports. Many of the whales are juvenile and while some were killed by ships and nets instead of malnutrition, researchers say it is because they are entering risky areas—including San Francisco Bay—in an effort to find food. "It's definitely not normal," Mary Jane Schramm at the Greater Farallones Marine Sanctuary, which monitors the whales' migration, tells the San Francisco Chronicle.
Researchers say only 10% of dead whales wash ashore, meaning the total number of deaths is likely 530 out of a population estimated at 20,000. The whales, which live off stored fat during the months they spend near California and Mexico, where the females give birth, have been making their way to feeding grounds in Alaska. Researchers believe weather patterns, possibly caused by climate change, meant they were unable to get enough food last year. "We have been facing record low levels of sea ice and earlier melting, which does not bode well for the organisms that the gray whales feed upon," says NOAA researcher Elliott Hazen, though other researchers say the whales, whose numbers dropped as low as 2,000 before protections were introduced, may have reached a natural limit. (This gray whale surprised researchers with a 14,000-mile journey.)