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Gray whale sightings expected to break records
The new year is less than a week old, but 2015 is already shaping up to be another record-breaker for gray whale sightings, and Malibu residents have a front-row seat for observing the annual winter migration.
Every year, from December until late April, gray whales migrate from their arctic feeding grounds to Baja California to give birth and then return north with their calves.
Whale census volunteers for the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Cetacean Society have tracked near-shore migratory gray whales for more than 30 years from Point Vincente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. They’ve already recorded more than 400 sightings of southbound gray whales since Dec. 1 — the census runs from Dec.1-May 15 every year.
Every one of the whales sighted at Palos Verdes has traveled past Point Dume on its way south, and the whales’ arrival off the coast of Malibu each winter is a cause for celebration for local whale watchers, who gather to observe the annual migration of these giant marine mammals at popular lookout sites like Point Dume Nature Preserve and Westward Beach.
The Malibu Surfside News joined whale watchers gathered at the wooden lookout platform on the morning of New Year’s Day, Thursday, Jan. 1. The observers were rewarded with the sight of three gray whales. Fin whales — a slightly smaller species of baleen whale — have also been reported in the area this week, along with pods of common dolphins and large numbers of sea lions.
According to Gray Whale Census director Alisa Schulman-Janiger, at the American Cetacean Society, this year’s census may record the highest number of whales ever. However, she cautions that the census data is limited to whales passing close enough to the observation location to be identified and counted and does not reflect the total number of migrating whales.
“The majority of the whales are further off shore, traveling by the Channel Islands,” Schulman-Janiger told the Malibu Surfside News.
“We only count the ones we can see, and our counts do not provide data on the total population, but for long-term shore-based observation these numbers are significant. The lowest count year was 1990-91, with just 301. This year is looking very good. We recorded more than 300 whales just in December.”
What the census does provide is data on seasonal usage of the nearshore migratory path, and changes to that usage over time. Census takers make careful note of the number of calves and any identifying features that may enable observers to recognize individuals.
While the whales usually give birth in the warm, calm water of the Sea of Cortez, some calves are born during the southbound migration.
“We’ve confirmed eight southbound whales with calves,” Schulman-Janiger said. “We’ve never had that many in December.”
She added that there was a total of 14 southbound calves last year and that she expects that record to be broken this January.
Gray whales were hunted to the edge of extinction in the 19th century. The species was given partial protection in 1937 and full protection in 1947 by the International Whaling Commission. The eastern north Pacific gray whale population has rebounded and now numbers between 19,000-23,000, according to the ACS.
Although adult gray whales can measure nearly 50 feet in length and weigh 30-40 tons, they can be surprisingly hard to see.
Patience and good observation skills are required. Gray whales sometimes come so close to shore that watchers will hear the sound of their breathing before they see them. It’s helpful to watch for the whale’s “footprint,” the “hole” left behind in the water when the whale submerges after surfacing to breathe.
By March, the whales begin heading north again. Mothers with calves tend to stay close to shore, providing beachgoers another opportunity to watch for one of the largest animals on earth.
Schulman-Janiger has a special request for Malibu kayakers and paddleboarders: “Be aware that the whales are out there right now,” she said. “Stay at least 100 yards away.”
Because kayakers and paddleboarders make little noise, the whales may be unaware that they are in the vicinity. “If a whale surfaces nearby, make a noise, let them know you’re there,” she said.
Schulman-Janiger told the Surfside News that she witnessed a boat harassing a whale with a young calf last week.
“They came between the cow and calf, separating them. There’s no reason to be on their tail. Harassment is illegal,” she said.
She recommends that anyone who wants a closer look at the whales opt for a professional whalewatching boat trip.
Island Packers, the National Park Service concessionaires that operate out of Ventura Harbor, offers daily three-hour whale watch trips from Oxnard or Ventura. The Ventura landing is wheelchair accessible. Adult tickets are $37, seniors are $33 and children $27.
Island Packer’s December sighting scorecard lists 148 gray whales, nine humpbacks, six orcas, two fin whales, 22,430 common dolphins, 100 bottlenose dolphins and 112 Risso’s dolphins.
For more information, visit www.islandpackers.com.
The ACS website provides a list of whalewatching trips out of San Pedro — www.acs-la.org/seewhales.htm.
Volunteers are always welcome to join the ACS census program.