Coal Oil Point, Channel Islands, California, USA
||Meet Michael H. Smith of Gray
Whales Count! See the view and join the whale
watchers at this California counting point with the feature
video clip "Waiting for Whales" from
the Ventura County Star newspaper. It's almost
as good as being there!
Thanks to Michael H. Smith, we
share selected highlights from the site of Gray
Whales Count (click for
searchable blog of daily reports
to see complete reports). The 2011 counting
season runs daily Feb. 7 to May 22 from 9 a.m.
to 5 p.m., weather
22: (All) 0 | Calves 0 — Gray
Whales Count is over for 2011. What a year. Total northbound
gray whales: 718,
including 120 calves!
0 | Calves 0. Today we saw no whales in 8 hours of relatively
good conditions. So, we had the ability
to see whales, if they were there, which is what we hope for.
In all likelihood, more whales will pass by, maybe even some
calves. Tomorrow at 1:00 we will wrap up our sample of the migration
and gather aboard the Condor Express to celebrate an exceptional
year. It's wonderful to be here.
20: (All) 0 | Calves 0) Fog kept us from seeing anything for
first three hours and 45 minutes. From there, even in what
became pretty-good visibility, we were shut out: no whales,
no dolphins, no Harbor seal, and, of course,
no Sea otters. It was strange, eerie. We know, however, that
tonight is a predicted grunion run and maybe the dolphins and
pinnipeds were amidst the massing behind the waves somewhere
else. That we did not see Gray whales in a four-hour stretch
is not surprising. We regret not being able to put in a whole
being said, we are actually lucky that we have not had more fog
this spring, as fog could have erased some of our big Counts.
2 | Calves 1) We did not have long to sit around and wonder if
the calves were still coming. They are! At 9:14 we saw a
blow, and by 9:16 we knew we were looking at calf number120!
What was almost as good for us after yesterday's very-short
day in the wind, today we got the whole day in. We know a cow/calf
pair went by and that was it. No more during that eight hours.
2 | Calves 1) Before the big, bad, wicked wolf of the west (and
his girlfriend Gale) blew the the place apart, we tracked
a Gray whale cow/calf pair around Counter Point. This was
the 119th calf, the most we have ever Counted! What a thrill.
17: (All) 0 | Calves 0) Today is the first
day with any Counting that we did not see a Gray whale
since March 6th (except for one
day we were
open for 22 minutes). Remarkable. We do not think the calves
are finished, but maybe that is just hoping on our part.
We do have some time to prove us right: we
have four-and-a-half more days of Counting.
16: (All) 2 | Calves 1) One of our data points is the arrangement
of mooring buoys for Venoco's oil barge; and, we mark if Gray
whales traveling northbound pass inside, outside, or through
have been surprised more than once that whales have gone through
the buoys, while the barge was being filled
with oil. When the wind started to come up and the
day turned gray, a mother and calf pair
emerged from the gray colored water, east of us. We tracked
them across the Point and to the buoys, when we lost them
without figuring out how they managed the buoys.
There were no more whales or dolphins in the cold afternoon.
15: (All) 7 | Calves 3) Our first sighting of Gray whales was
a pair of pairs, and just like a road trip. For a while the
kids were together
with the adults chatting away. Then after they passed Counter
Point the calves fell into migration position with their respective
moms. Our third cow/calf pair almost made it by us and the
Count board, but we caught them west of Counter Point. We had
datasheets and preparing the equipment for imminent rain that never
came, thankfully. And, we are thankful one of us looked around
at the right time. In the afternoon we added a single, mature Gray
whale. We looked and we looked for a calf. Not there. It was
windy. Even so, we
got good looks as we were able to track the whale through several
surfacings all the way across and through the buoys.
14: (All) 8 | Calves 4) The afternoon was a blast: lots
of whales, lots of fun, some wind, some confusion, smiles all the
way home. Our first Gray-whale cow/calf pair showed up in the kelp
as we were tracking some leaping Bottlenose dolphins. The mother
her calf traveled the length of the Isla Vista kelp before popping
out next to Counter Point and in front of some appreciative surfers.
That put us so tantalizingly close to 700: one shy.
Not long after we settled back in we got a call from a Counter
who had seen "at least" two whales pass More Mesa. If
they made it, that would put us over, and we hoped they would be
Counted about 4:30, well before closing.
We did not have to wait that long. About ten minutes after the
phone tip, we saw blows at Campus Point, a big blow and a little
puff: a cow/calf pair, whales 700 and 701, and these were, obviously
not the whales described in the phone tip. No way they could have
swum that far in so short a time: more on their way from More Mesa.
We saw a blow at Campus Point about 4:20, likely the expected whales.
In the mix were kayakers, and the whales were meandering back and
forth, all over the place and disappearing. It turned out to be
two sightings, two cow/calf pairs, four whales in all, bringing
us to 705 total whales, including 114
13: (All) 6 | Calves 3) Late whales ... we think we are
very lucky to get late whales because we always go home with smiles.
At 4:45 as we were tracking some leaping Bottlenose
dolphins, two Gray-whale cow/calf pairs arrived at Campus Point
with a crescendo of big blows and little puffs, and they were right
together. The four whales maintained the close association with
many big, little, big, little surface patterns. The little ones
occasionally broke the pattern for solitary breaths. The Bottlenose
dolphins were with the whales at the start, but as they all set-off
west, the dolphins headed a bit closer to shore
and the kelp. After Counter Point, the whales drifted further outside,
perhaps, to keep away from a chasing stand-up paddler. For whatever
reason, the Gray-whale cow/calf pair continued west, in a rare
move, outside the oil-barge buoys.
Time for smiles: 110 calves with 697 total whales!
Earlier, at eleven, we saw our first pair of the day. Unlike the late group,
this pair made almost no visible blows. Even so, momma lifted her big head right
in front of us, and we waved right back.
12: (All) 4 | Calves 2) Just west of Counter Point, about
three-quarters of a mile out, there was a big disturbance in the
water that a Counter thought might be a whale. But, no whale. Maybe
it was a very active natural oil seep. Oh, there's a Sea lion.
Nobody quite bought that a Sea lion could stir up the water that
way ... Ten minutes later, another big something, much closer to
the Point. A massive bubble blast. That has to be a whale. No,
maybe it was a seep blast. (A what?) Whatever it was we did not
see a whale. Ten minutes later, there it was! Hey, it is a whale.
Moments later the calf surfaced. After being so stealth, they were
all over the place for the next almost an hour. There were at least
four, major bubble blasts,
one a double with a big and a little blast. There was rolling
with the showing of calf flukes and lots of moving west and east.
would approach the buoys and then turn around, blast, and turn
around again. Then, they re-assumed stealth mode and disappeared.
In very calm seas we could not track them. We do not know where
they went. Later we saw a string of four hundred Common dolphins
and almost as many birds buzzing above. So much energy. Under the
are certain there was also quite a bit of energy being expended
in try to get out of the path.
Just before one, as we were preparing for a shift change, a touch
of wind cleared some of the haze, and we cought sight of something
way out to the east. Big blows, huge blows, a bunch of whales! Blue
whales! An amazing surprise for us. We saw our first Blue whale
from Counter Point last year, one whale. Earlier in April
we saw a single Blue whale and we expressed how truly rare it is
for us to see a Blue whale. They usually do not arrive in the Santa
Barbara Channel until June and when they arrive they search for
Krill on the south side of the Channel, fifteen to twenty miles
away, and when we have finished our survey.We watched the five
whales for more than an hour as the traveled on a course just over
two miles out that took them outside the seep-tent buoy and out
side Platform Holly. This was the Gray-whale migration route until
the cow/calf phase. What a sight. For most on shore, it was their
first look at the largest animals to have ever lived on the planet.
And, fortunately, we have good binoculars and got much better looks
than camera images. And, an hour and a half later we were just
as thrilled to find Gray whale cow/calf pair number 107. They,
however, did not seem
to care too much for Counter Point. They moved right along, inside
the buoys, and on their way.
11: (All) 6 | Calves 3) In
the late afternoon, on the way back to Isla Vista, some kayakers
found themselves intersecting
the path of a northbound Gray whale (below, left) ... with her
calf (number 105 (right).
This was our third cow/calf pair of a
continuing extraordinary year. Our second pair loved the Isla
Vista kelp. They came around Campus Point and immediately turned
right, into the kelp. Most pair continue along the kelp. Maybe
mom was doing some snacking on Mysid shrimp or maybe it was just
nice meandering through the forest. Both pairs like our third
pair stayed close to the surf and traveled inside the buoys.
4 | Calves 2) There was no time to bask in the glow of
the Hundred-Calf Milestone. We got a little blow from behind
wave, very close
to Counter Point, as we were setting up. Mom was a bit more
showy. The pair, very slowly, moved along Sands, inside the
buoys, and further along Sands, in the waves toward Ellwood.
A bit before ten, we had a follow-up: a big blow from the kelp
east of the Point, pause ... pause ... pause, then a little
head popped up. This pair was even slower. At times not moving,
not doing much at all. The calf remained attached to mom's
hip and they moved along the same route: pair number 102.
Beautiful. A little while later, a big wind came up. We did
not expect such a big wind again today. We escaped after three
more Gray whales on the day.
6 | Calves 3) At 9:30 we saw what
parade of three northbound,
Gray whale cow/calf pairs: numbers 98, 99, and 100 for this
year's Count. What an absolute thrill. In the four years
from 2007 through
2010, we had low to very low calf-counts. This is, apparently,
a good year;
them past Counter Point.
We saw the 100th calf of this season!
Pair number 99
8: (All: 02 | Calves 1)This
pair was all we could manage on a very windy day in the Channel.
We do not think we missed
any, but we could have. Unfortunately the winds
bring a lot of fast traffic to the nearshore of the Santa
Barbara Channel, as these photos show:
speed across the choppy sea makes it very difficult
for them to see even
a whale when it is right in front of them.
windsurfer just missed colliding with the calf, bobbing
in the waves, now behind, and for the moment, safe.
May 7: (All:
10 | Calves 4) We opened a bit early because a whale was
in the kelp just east of Counter Point. It was a little,
Gray whale, and
we were hoping to confirm that it was a calf. The bigger problem
was that we were unable to find the bigger whale. When the sighting
had moved west, way past the buoys, an observer caught a v-shaped
blow that was likely the mother. But, we could not be sure, so
we entered the "whales" as a single. At the end, we
gladly clocked some overtime to confirm a certain cow/calf pair
that we sighted twelve minutes before five. We
put in some off-effort time as well to enjoy the pair, rolling
in front of Counter Point, then blowing off into the sunset.
In all, we added four calves to give us a real shot at breaking
100, over the next two weeks of the survey.
May 6: (All: 14 | Calves 0) On this 89th day of Gray
Whales Count 2011, with more than two weeks to go, we have counted
more northbound, Gray whales
than any other entire Count.
00 | Calves 0) We had zero visibility today.
4: (All: 24 | Calves 12)
In eight hours and one minute, 24 Gray whales passed by Counter
Point, establishing a new record for us: a dozen calves in a
day. Truly wonderful.
We are always careful to say our count is our raw data and
is not really comparable before analyzing and developing an
However, in 2009 and 2010 combined, we saw only 71 calves. Right
now we have counted 86 in the unfinished 2011. Truly wonderful.
Our last group was almost a combination of three groups. One
pair lead the late-afternoon parade. The calf nodded several
times to the appreciative folks on Counter Point before this
pair they were off towards Point Conception.
(See photo) The
final grouping started as two groups, one about a mile behind the
preceding pair, and a half-mile ahead
of the trailing pairs. Since the nodding whales had stepped up
the pace, these groups decided to merge and present the finale,
a glorious rolling, surging, twisting, promenade that concluded
with the three pairs lining inside the buoys, along Sands, and
off toward Naples Point in the hazy, afternoon sun.
May 3: (All 13 | Calves 6) Not even time to clean our glasses
before we saw a whale, that turned into two, a cow/calf pair
of Gray whales, surrounded
by bouncy bottlenose dolphins. We tracked the conglomeration
to the buoys and then they all disappeared. OK ... time to clean
our binoculars and get set up.
Just before 11:00 we saw the arch of a whale body just inside
Campus Point. Minutes later the big blow and little puff of a
cow/calf pair put smiles on our faces. Then the whales disappeared
for twenty minutes. They were in the Isla Vista kelp ... where?
After some mild anxiety, we found them just outside the kelp,
and tracked them west, past Counter Point, inside the buoys,
and along Sands Beach. Our third pair made a wave that became
a whale halfway between Campus Point and Counter Point. They
were not the blowy type
and not very showy at all until they passed us, when they turned
around and then turned around again. They went inside the buoys
but did not pause along Sands Beach. Perhaps they were trying
to put some distance between themselves and the raucous group
of whales and dolphins making a scene two miles behind.
Pairs four and five were accented by Bottlenose dolphins, lots
of them, about 15 leaping splashing and churning the water;
or was that the whales? At first, it really was difficult to
see what was going on and how many whales were actually there.
After a half-hour at Campus Point, in-and-out of the kelp, the
five whales, two cow/calf pairs that kept very close together
and a single, mature whale that would join the group, then separate,
especially when they started moving towards Counter Point. When
they got here, it was more mixing and matching, much to the surprise
and delight of a kayaker who had set up to do some fishing and
was positioned front-row center in a real-life theater-in-the-round
for the cetacean circus.
After some pirouettes the whales took the show on the road to
their next venue, between the surfers at Sands and the buoys,
where they preformed stunning acrobatics for about forty-five
minutes. One of the Counters had moved along the bluff to a vantage
above Sands to document the event. Two surfers came up and asked
if we had seen any whales. The Counter stammered yes, and pointed
to the five Gray whales splashing about in the waters before
them. One was heard to say: "Yeah, dude, I told you I thought
I saw a whale ..."
Pause ... pause ... pause to catch our breath and along comes
another whale. This seemed like a single whale, cruising along,
when it stopped on the way to the buoys and the calf appeared
from the ocean side of mom, who circled the calf bobbing in the
little waves. Another remarkable day.
May 2: (All: 12 | Calves 6) The day was half
empty and half overflowing. Our first sighting of whales was
at 1:10, and the last of six Gray-whale cow/calf. pairs arrived
at Campus Point
We tracked them
inside the oil-barge
buoys and shut down an hour and fifteen minutes later. They were
not in rush hour. Something was going on today ... It was warm
and beautiful with no wind. There was a touch of haze, and some
and distorted ships, oil platforms, and islands. None of that
should have affected the whales. We saw about five breaches,
two in the same spot by different whales. More than one of the
giant leaps was by the adult. Unusual.
10 | Calves 5) photo A
Gray-whale mother and calf surface inside the oil-barge buoys
and outside the break
at Sands. The Gaviota coastline leads west toward Point Conception.
We started with two pairs at 9:05 blowing and blowing and blowing ... What a
pleasant change from the no-blow behavior we have been experiencing. They gave
us plenty to look in addition with many surfacings, some meandering, and just
a touch of drama. Just east of Counter Point all four whales paused at a patch
of kelp. Two stand-up paddlers saw the whales and positioned themselves in what
they thought was the whales' path on the west side of the Point. We wondered
about that choice and thought we could hear their hearts pounding where we stood.
Pause ... Where were the whales? We figure the whales somehow knew the guys were
there and didn't surface until they were well past the befuddled paddlers. There
was no apparent stress other
than a long downtime. After they surfaced, it was back to very slow travel to
the oil-barge buoys and Sands Beach.
Our second sighting was a single cow/calf pair with no-blow
behavior, same as the next pair that followed about two miles behind. Neither
or agitated. The tracking lasted until about 12:30, and then there was nothing
but sunshine until 4:30 when we saw blows, yes blows, at Campus Point: our fifth
cow/calf pair of the day. We watched them past closing time to make sure they
were past the buoys and on their way towards Point Conception.
April 30: (All: 10 | Calves 4) Warm,
a bit hazy, and by mid-day, no wind. There was so little wind
the whales saw
need to blow. This made things more difficult for us to find
and track the whales, and it made us wonder what was influencing
Were Killer whales around? Not that we saw. Was it rest time?
Maybe. Was it because there was no wind? Probably not, but it's
strange to think about.
we saw our first Gray whales, which were a pair of big whales,
not blowing, keeping a very low profile. They traveled
the buoys. Our second pair was a cow/calf pair making little
waves a mile and a half east of us and just off the kelp. Like
the first pair, they made no blows all the way across our area.
(We looked again for Killer whales.)
We found our second cow/calf pair the same way, and again, saw
no blows. Eventually, for whatever reason, they decided that
to blow at Counter Point. Perhaps they agreed
with our assessment that there were no Killer whales in the vicinity.
Our third cow/calf pair resumed the behavior. Yet, this pair
settled in. They seemed to like Counter Point and the kelp and
the very shallow water in the surf zone at Devereux (the surf
break that was flat at the moment and had no surfers in the water.)
It was reserved for mother and calf . They went round and
round, with a bit of rolling and what looked to be nursing with
the calf nuzzling as its flukes raise above the water. It was
Our final, official pair, managed to blow only twice, both
times past Counter Point and before the buoys (See photo)
We were closing up when we saw that movement in the water that
had seen so often on this day. (See photo)
These whales did not make the Count, but like yesterday's after-hour
for a lot. It is shaping into a very good year.
6 | Calves 3 ) The run of calves has truly excited us all.
Our official sightings for the day were three cow/calf pairs
traveling about two miles apart. These sightings and tracking
filled our morning with wonderful
the intimacy of mother and calf. In raw count, we have now passed the total for
all of 2007, the first of three consecutive low years. We
have a ways to go, and certainly hope the run continues.
the whales are passing even when we are not on duty to see. We
got phone calls from Counters in various locations
with sightings of Gray whales that didn't make it to
Counter Point before we closed at 5:00 and went home. The reality,
as we know it, is that calves can take their own sweet time
and often do. When Counter Larry Hess was riding his bike
home, this is what he saw: "Three went
by (1 calf), a group of four (1 calf) a 1/4 mile behind, and
and slightly behind them, and now 3 more (1 calf) just went
Crazy ... amazing ... They did not make The Count, but they certainly count!
6 | Calves 3) Very strong winds have made visual observation
and Counting very difficult.
It was not a great day for surveying, but it was wonderful day
for documenting three more calves. The Condor Express bucked
the wind and waves and found a cow/calf pair in Goleta Bay, which
we cannot see from where we stand,
regardless of the conditions. We got a call from Captain Dave
who told us he was "delivering the pair" and would be at Campus
Point in the next few minutes. True to his word, the big, white
boat appeared at Campus Point with a Gray whale calf and mother.
The passengers got great looks at the whales, surrounded by Bottlenose dolphins.
We got two calls about our final pair, and we thought we might
see them about 3:00. By now the wind was 35 knots, and we were
determined to add
the pair to our Count. Because of such wonderful collaborators,
we were able to add six Gray whales, including three calves!
27: (10 whales, incl. 5 calves) We started slowly and ended
a whirlwind, literally. It is small consolation that the wind
It was very windy; and, when combined with the afternoon glare,
it was nearly impossible to see. S0, it was great work by Counters,
tracking and documenting another cow/calf pair before the shutdown.Gray
whales entered the area about 11:00, with two sightings of
cow/calf pairs. The first pair was about twenty minutes ahead
of the trailing whales. We tracked these whales until just
after noon. A half-hour later, more whales: two cow/calf pair
rounded Campus Point together. Most of the time, they were
like one, very close. It was easy to track this group. They
made quite a scene surfacing together. When we looked up, however,
it was not just whale-splashing that was causing such a mess
in the ocean. The wind was back.
We held on while whitecaps covered the sea. Ironically, it
was the yellow sail of a windsurfer that pointed us to our
final cow/calf sighting of the day.
26: (16 whales, including 7 calves) We knew it was coming;
and we were hoping they would come sooner, rather than later. Just
called to say that at least one cow/calf pair, and maybe two, were
is more than four hours east of Counter Point as whales swim. They
arrived at Campus Point at 1:09. We saw the big, white boat, the
Condor Express, and we saw the blows at Campus Point. We told the
captain about our tip. They found them and delivered them almost
to our doorstep. They probably would have except it arrived a few
minutes later: the wind. As forecast, yesterday's gale was resuming
and making what was already a very choppy sea, an impossible sea,
almost impossible for us to see. We managed
to identify the whales, capture one calf, and know there were two
different, big whales; but, we were unable to find a second little
whale. Hey, we thought it was pretty terrific we managed what we
did ... it was blowing more than 35 knots. We learned something:
Many folks want to know why whales breach. And, we know that at
least one reason is to help Counters find
them when it is blowing 35 knots. Big help!
The whales approached Counter Point through the kelp; and we saw
three or four, calf mini-breaches and various body slams into waves.
Yes, it was difficult to distinguish blows in the very heavy chop
and spray, but we actually tracked the whales across our Point
and inside the buoys. Then, we closed down.
It was a
shortened but all-together fantastic day, adding seven more
calves. It was almost non-stop whales from the opening.
Often we experience whales in pulses with multiple groups passing
at once or right after one another. Then, nothing. Today, the
whales were spread out so that as one group passed, two beats
later blows announced the arrival of a new sighting. And, they
kept coming. Six of the groups had one calf. There was one group
of two pairs, confirmed; and one "group" of a single,
juvenile Gray whale.
25: (7 whales, with 3 calves) Whales in the waves
at Counter Point!!!! (See
photo) It was a terrific group. When they came around Campus
Point they were joined by about seven Bottlenose dolphins that
swam around and through the whales. They were a little far
away, but we do not think there was any aggression. There were
no defensive or offensive behaviors displayed. The dolphins
seemed to want to be apart of the action and there was plenty.
There were two calves and two cows and a younger whale with
two round, white spots on its right side (see
photo). One of the calves had a big white patch on its
right side (photo).
Distinctive marks like these are great for photo-identification.
If an image was taken in the lagoon, we can update the nascent
history of this calf with documentation that it made it to
Goleta on April 25. When these whales were passing us there
was not much wind in the nearshore, but we could see the windline
and whitecaps on the other side of Platform Holly. Before the
blowout, we saw whale blows at Campus Point. The cow/calf pair
started towards us but dolphins and the wind caught them before
they could get close. Fortunately, we do have good equipment,
and we were able to get the looks we needed to Count the whales.
24: The morning was beautiful, and we were hoping
to document a continuing surge of calves in this year's migration.
We did not have to wait too long. A pair announced their
arrival at Campus Point and moved slowly towards Counter
Point with lots of surfacings. The calf was easy to spot
with a big white spot on its right side, just before the
knuckles. We tracked the whales inside the oil-barge buoys
and on towards Sands and Ellwood.
A juvenile, Gray whale was only a mile behind, following
the path of the cow/calf pair; and a mile behind the single
was another cow/calf pair that kept the parade going toward
Ellwood and Point Conception beyond.
Unfortunately the wind started to come up about 11:00 and
it kept on coming like the whales (in the opposite direction).
Just before 12:30 the kiteboarders and windsurfers took off
across the very choppy sea. We held on a bit, but it was
no use: we could not see. We will be back tomorrow hoping
for less wind and more calves.
23: (24 whales, including 11 calves) As we were
starting to set up, we saw blows of our first, official whales,
a cow/calf pair. Two single, juveniles followed a half-hour
apart. Almost three hours later we saw blow ... blow-blow
... blow-blow-blow .. blow-blow at Campus Point. And, that
was merely the fanfare trumpeting, the march to the
starting gate. Eight whales broke from Campus Point like the front straightaway
at Churchill downs. They weren't in pairs; they were all mixed up ... which whale
was going to get to Counter Point first?
we saw two calves stretch to the surface blowing past a diving
It did make it harder to establish just what it was we were
seeing: how many whales and how many calves. We did not really
get a handle until the race was over and all the whales were
over towards Sands and Ellwood. What a thrill!!! It
is odd that we had just finished a discussion about describing
Gray-whale migration speed as slow travel. This was not slow
travel. It was truly an amazing sight. What a day.
tenth calf of the day surfaces rostrum first and on the left
side (the ocean side) of mom (photo).
An hour later another pair of gray whales came around Campus Point. They brought
two more pairs along for the ride. This was more a promenade than a race. The
pairs meandered all over the place and dilly-dallied long enough that another
pair joined the parade that included Bottlenose dolphins past Counter Point
4:00 the wind came up quite strong but could not hold back
the whales. One pair plowed into the chop, while the second
pair of Gray whales snuck through the Isla Vista kelp before
pulling into the spray ay Counter Point. This was the last
pair of a most incredible day. We last saw the calf poking
its head out to check out the surf or surfer at Sands. (photo)
22: (2 whales including one calf) Happy Earth Day!
Mixed weather, but no heavy wind and eight hours of Counting.
was only one Gray-whale sighting, a cow/calf pair. We saw the
whales turn around, the calf switching sides, and mom blasting
get junior to turn right, inside the buoys and off towards Point
21: We were expecting fog, low clouds, maybe some
drizzle. Wind was not on our radar. Apparently, it was not
on the weather
people's radar either. There is a preview-peek of the ocean
from Slough Road, approaching the gate into the Coal Oil Point
Natural Reserve. Whitecaps?It is generally not a good sign
to see whitecaps at 8:30 in the morning. Today was not an exception.
We allow more latitude in our protocol when the calf migration
is on because we do not see many whales out by the oil platform
even in the best conditions. Cow/calf pairs travel mostly within
a half-mile of the sand. In heavy winds we cannot see out to
sea very far. And, again, there were no exceptions (as far
as we could tell). Our two pairs swam along next to and, at
times, in the kelp, not very far offshore, on the way to Counter
Point.Pair number one rounded Campus Point with seven blowing,
bouncing Bottlenose dolphins about a mile ahead of the whales.
Before we saw the whales, there was a thought the dolphin conglomeration
was a whale or two. No, but it made us look harder in that
particular direction, and it was there we saw a wind-swept,
whale blow. We did not see the calf at first: too much chop
and spray. On the third surfacing, a little blow sprouted alongside
the backdrop of mom's massive body. And, of course, it helps
us a lot when the young whale lifts its head above the water,
as this one did many times.And, like several this year, this
pair passed the Point and turned around, heading east to a
patch of kelp. We saw sand in the shallow water that was likely
kicked up by mom. Both whales spyhopped, side by side. Stunning.
20: Our cow/calf pairs were actually pairs today (as
opposed to yesterday's groupings): one in the morning with
an hour before and one in the afternoon with a single an hour
later. We started with fog all around and sometimes no oil
platform. We were even a bit surprised to find our first whale,
managed to track the whale through a few surfacings before,
well, we don't know because we could not see very well. A bit
later the fog started to clear and there was our lovely morning
cow/calf pair in the Isla Vista kelp. Like some pairs this
year, after passing the Point, they turned around and headed
back towards us, rolled a bit, momma gave a bubble blast (quite
a blast), and in a few moments they were back on the trail
west, inside the buoys.Well into the afternoon, with some wind
and whitecaps all around, we spotted our second pair after
they had passed Counter Point. We'll take it. We got several
good looks as they were not in too much of a hurry to get on
with it. An hour later we saw small blows in the east. We were
hoping they were calf blows, but, instead, it was a lone juvenile,
maybe a yearling making its way. (Photo)
19: (13 whales, incl. 4 calves) A still image
cannot convey how frightening this incident was. (Photo) The Condor
Express was not moving, watching Gray whales linger
at Counter Point, right in front of us. What you see is a single
whale, arched at the surface in water that is not very deep.
What you do not see is the three other whales, including a
calf, bunched in the same area. Four whales! What you do not
see is the speed of the approaching commercial, urchin dive-boat
that, to the astonishment of the captains of the Condor
Express, chose to cut inside the whale-watching
boat, so close to shore, right on top of and over four whales.The
whales were not struck,
and moments later the boats were gone: the urchin diver not
looking back, and the Condor Express, slowly, carefully
pulling away and heading south. The whales, alone, hesitated,
moved west, inside the oil-barge buoys, on the cow/calf pair
trail. Instead of pausing off Sands or Ellwood, the whales
seemed to want to be done with this volatile area. Good choice,
but not quite fast enough ... A jet-ski appeared east of Counter
Point and, before we could believe it, was speeding over the
path of the four whales.Jean-Michel Cousteau called them obstacles
for the gray-whale migration. We see the hardship.
Literally: hard ship. Fast, blind, and unthinking.And, sadly,
it was not over at our Point. Another group of northbound Gray
whales was east of Counter Point and heading west, while another
urchin diving boat was heading on the same course, much faster,
unseeing, and not paying attention. The boat drove right over
these three whales, including a calf. We saw the whales surface
well after the boat had passed, then disappear, probably wishing
they could actually disappear.We were stunned, numb.No whales
were struck that we know of. They were certainly shaken. Fortunately,
we do not see many incidents like this; but, truly, once is
enough, too much.In spite of the bad-action, it was great to
find four calves, and they arrived, unusually, with an entourage,
groups of three, three times, and a group of four. Can't say
we have seen that before; but ... that we like.
18: (6 whales, incl.2 calves) The first and only dolphins
of the day were a pair of Bottlenose that arrived at 4:40. Fortunately,
the whale pairs, along with some singles, were more punctual.Our
first pair didn't get up too early. We saw the whales before
10:00, inside of Campus Point. There was some fog restricting
visibility in the morning that cleared as the day went on.
We had wonderful looks at the pair as they slowly worked their
way west, past us, inside the oil-barge buoys, and lingered
a bit before moving towards Naples. Passengers on the Condor
Express, which maintained a respectful distance, got to see
what this migration is all about. Cheers!Turning our attention
back to the Point, a Harbor seal swam through the waves at
high tide. Our one o'clock whale was two singles, maybe two
miles apart, that sped by us. The first traveled through the
buoys where a few days earlier the giant oil barge was being
filled with oil.At 2:30 our second and final Gray whale cow/calf
pair made its way past Campus Point and headed toward us through
a corner of the Isla Vista kelp. The calf switched sides twice.
A bit past Counter Point, mom got the calf's attention with
a bubble blast and they turned inside the oil-barge buoys.
Without too much ado, they were off again towards Point Conception
and points north.
17: At 8:30 the morning supervisor, Erin, was riding
her bike to Counter Point when she saw the two whales also
for the Point. Counters scrambled to get binos and datasheet
to start counting before actual setup. There they were, right
in front heading west slowly. Beautiful. It was Erin's first
great look at a calf even though she trained as an intern-supervisor
last year. She watch a couple more breaths as the whales continued
west. Then ... they stopped, turned around east and headed back
towards Erin on Counter Point. A spyhop, nudge, and bubble blast
ensued. Mom rolled and the calf dove in what looked like it might
be nursing. Greatness! We watched the pair make their way west,
inside the buoys, past Ellwood, and on towards Point Conception.
An hour later we saw the Condor Express come around Campus Point,
and they were watching an elusive juvenile gray whale. We had
just seen a big whale a bit further on. With the sun behind the
whales, back lit blows can look really big. Well, these were
really, really big: a blue whale. Truth be told, we identified
the whale as a fin whale. The captain of the Condor Express, having left the small, juvenile, gray whale, identified the whale
as a Blue whale. More greatness. What a rare treat on the north
side of the Santa barbara Channel in April.
OK, now on to weirdness. It really did not start out that way.
We tracked the juvenile gray whale past the Point, but lost it
as we were trying to get last looks at the Blue whale. We did
not think it mattered much. We identified the whale, counted
it as a northbound gray whale, and took its picture. Trouble
is, that the whale did not want to leave the area. Apparently
it was, at least, trying to feed. It hung around for hours, going
back and forth, with some long downtimes that led us to believe
it had moved on. Not so.
It did seem to be gone about 1:00. Then it was back at 2:30 and
we last saw it about 4:00. That is tough. We manage this survey
counting on the fact that these whales are moving left to right
and on up the coast. We do love it when the calves get turned
around and come back for a second look, but soon enough (way
too soon for some of us) they are back on the right track.
adults, 1 with 3 calves) Good as it gets! Today was the beginning
of a two-day Earth Day festival, where it all began, in Santa
Barbara. Gray whales Count was
enthusiastically represented by a corps of Counters, organized
by Carol Rae, Allie Cope, and Britney Craighead. In addition
to Pictures and stories and even some facts about gray whales
and the migration, the Counters at the festival announced
the arrival of new sightings at Counter Point.
It must have been fun for all. Huge thanks to all. And, sorry
you were not on...
Read more...sorry you were not on the Point because it was
a wonderful day: eigth hours in warm sun with no wind and
many passersby awestruck by the whales, all cow/calf pairs,
arriving in the morning, noontime, and afternoon.The morning
pair was exciting because at first we did not know it was
a cow/calf pair. There was quite a bit of space between the
big and little whales when the rounded Campus Point, two
miles east of us. Soon, however, the calf locked in alongside
mom in a promenade past Counter Point.A few bottlenose dolphins
filled the time until the next whales.Just after noon we
saw our second pair, and realized pretty soon that a calf
was in the mix. It was quite a mix ...A half-mile past Campus
point, an unknowing sportfishing boat raced over the whales
when the were underwater. Apparently no harm. A mile later
as they were approaching Counter Point another sportfishing
was bearing down on the whales when, all of sudden, mom surfaced
in a bold move to protect her calf.
The pair in the boat had been completely unaware of the pair
of whales until the almost collision. Hey, those are whales!!
Let's follow them.The chase was on across the Point to the buoys,
when the canny whale ducked under the fishing boat and surfaced
quietly along Sands Beach. The Condor Express arrived about then
and warned the boaters about their careless behavior. They chose
to move on to smaller fish.Mom then parked her calf in the surf
at Sands for an hour while she went off, maybe to the kelp at
Ellwood for a snack. All the while baby was bobbing off the beach
where the protected Snowy plovers are setting up nests. Quite
a contrast of species.We were charmed by the third pair, our
seventh calf. At first we hardly saw them. The whales were escorted
around Campus Point by two, whale-watching boats. One boat stopped
at Campus Point and the other kept its distance, while the whales
traveled though the Isla Vista kelp towards Counter Point. Before
the whales got to our survey point the second boat left the mother
and calf to us on land. They passed the Point and then about
a quarter-mile on, they stopped, turned around and the calf charged
back to Counter Point.
Up popped the calf with a wink to the assembled Counters and
Right back atcha.They lingered there in front of us for a few
minutes, before another, bigger boat was motoring east past the
whales. Mom dove toward the calf and made a large bubble blast.
The whales then turned back around in the proper-migration fashion,
heading towards the afternoon sun and along the waves past Counter
Point.As they departed, they gave us a last salute in front of
the surfers at Sands.
Pretty cool, dude.
April 15: (4 adults, 1 calf) About 10:30 we saw blows at Campus
Point. We knew right away there were two, and the blows were
big, not like a cow/cal pair. However, the whales moved towards
us very like a cow/calf pair with little blows from time to time,
meandering, and a bubble blast. We searched but could not find
the little whale or maybe even two. Perhaps some photos ... Couldn't
be sure but it looked like there was a calf between the bigger
whales ...No. A second pair arrived about 1:20. This didn't look
like a pair at first. Then it did; and, definitely a cow/calf
We got lots of good looks before an observer spotted a lot of
common dolphins, around two thousand of them, about a mile beyond
the whales. The dolphins had their heads in the water and seemed
locked into foraging mode. The whales turned right, then turned
around east for a time. We do not know for certain, but it looked
like the gray whales were very concerned about the high-frequency
blasts. Earlier, the calf had been on the outside (a reason we
did not see it at first). Momma corralled her baby and kept it
on her right side, the shore side as they moved west.
Yesterday, there was a report that as many as twenty, killer
whales were in the east Santa Barbara Channel. No incidents were
seen, but maybe these whales heard the orcas as they passed through
April 14: (8 whales, with 1 calf) Hard eight: the four pairs
of northbound, gray whales were difficult, but one was certainly
The oil barge moved into the mooring buoys this morning. Perhaps,
because of that, all the whales were shy, sometimes clandestine.
The cow/calf pair was delightful to see as mom seemed to be very
careful, directing her calf along the kelp, through breathing
cycles, and around the huge oil barge.
All the other pairs maintained very long downtimes, and one pair
never made a visible blow while surfacing with a gentle parting
of water several times. Had we not had zero Beaufort conditions,
we might not have seen them.
We did not see a harbor seal, but we don't think the barge had
anything to do with that. Small groups of bottlenose dolphins
cruised by and a small (for them) group of common dolphins sped
by a mile and a half offshore.
13: (3 whales) A huge wind was forecast for the Santa
Barbara Channel, and a huge wind arrived late enough to allow
Counting time. We added three juvenile northbound gray whales.
12: (3 whales) When a whale popped up in the kelp right
in front of Counter Point just before 9, it looked like it was
going to be one of those days. When the gray whale disappeared
after a second blow and roll, we got to thinking it might be one
of those days. After eight hours, we can say it was a difficult
day. We did find a pair of gray whales at two o'clock, and we were
able to track
these juveniles, but barely. By this time, the wind was coming
up. And, the wind kept coming up. We do not think we were missing
whales, but it was difficult to see. We did have a few sightings
of what may have been the same harbor seal, and after 11, a group
of nine bottlenose dolphins slowly
strolled by from right to left. That was it.
We do keep hearing that there were lots of whales, including caves
in the lagoons. We are ready.
11: (9 whales) A 1:00 rush brought three groups
of gray whales: a pair, one and a half miles out, with a trio
following a mile-and-a-half behind, and a solitary traveler,
on the inside, right in front of us. We had no whales all morning,
and then there were six. Confusing (momentarily) and exciting.
Thousands of common dolphins formed a parade of their own after
passed, with bottlenose dolphins mostly before.At 3:30
another pair of gray whales crossed close to the Point and inside
the oil-barge buoys.
Whale number nine was the blowingest single we have documented:
six blows before a fluke at one surfacing. We suspect multiple
whales whenever there are more than three blows, but there was
of more than one here. Adios, señor.
10: (2 whales) The captain of the Condor
Express tipped us off about the first whale,
a juvenile, very near shore. Later, the captain
reported another likely-juvenile off the harbor, with an ETA
at Counter Point about 1.
After 10, two harbor seals were splashing and diving in the Isla
Vista kelp. In the next half hour the dolphins made their entrance.
As we were entering that sighting,
we saw whale number one. There was a nice blow, followed a bit
later by another. The whale seemed calm, heading our way. Through
three more surfacings, no problem, we thought. But, that was
the last we saw of the whale. In the meantime, the dolphins became
quite active foraging very near the whale. In calm water and
good light, the whale disappeared.
Perhaps the whale was intimidated by the dolphins, and it probably
did not help that the oil and gas seeps seemed to be rumbling
as well. Whale number two showed up just before 1 PM with not
one, but two, whale-watching boats and a small, private boat
had no idea how to behave around whales. Even so, we noted the
whale seemed unfazed. We entered three breathing sequences, and
then the boats all separated from the whale. We notched several
more breathing sequences, and then just before leaving our area,
the second gray whale disappeared.
9: (4 whales) a wall of wind crashed
into us and closed us down after noon. Fortunately, two pairs
of gray whales (no calves) made our Count before we were so rudely
run off the Point.
whales including 1 calf) For Southern California in April,
it was cold but beautiful. We could see
all four islands
day when the wind climbed
to 20 knots and windboarders were loading up. We seriously thought
our day was about done at 1. Then the wind dropped dramatically
and our observation quality zoomed from Poor to Good. At 3:01,
we thought there was a blow in the east. On the next surfacing,
we knew it was a cow/calf pair. They were terrific:
slow traveling, with frequent blows from the calf, who stayed
very close to momma. Everybody got great looks as the whales
inside the oil-barge buoys and skimmed the surf at Ellwood. Calf
number two this season! A half hour after the pair had passed
Counter Point, we sighted a single, juvenile gray whale and tracked
our area before closing.
7: (0 whales) Wind ... no whales, no real ability
whales) We are entering the cow/calf phase of the migration. True, we have
only seen one calf and that was last week. Even so, we expect calves to
be on the move. We also expect to see juveniles, mostly traveling alone,
but some hitching a ride with a bigger, more experienced whale. And, we
know we will continue to see groups of adults, some continuing the mating
game. At 10:06 observers on the first group of whales shouted BREACH. Astonishingly,
a whale from the group breached three times in relatively shallow water.
Even more astonishing, the observer tracking the second group nodded as
she was watching a whale from her group breach. It took a moment to realize
that the whales were breaching simultaneously. Another moment later we sighted
a third group, halfway between the first and second group. There were seven
whales total, divided amongst what we
usually consider three separate groups; but are they? We would love to
know (and never will)
if the breaches were a coincidence or well timed.
April 5: (5 whales) Many Counters were wondering where the whales are. Just
a few days ago there were lots. Well, today there were not a lot of whales,
nor dolphins. For a time, we did not even have an oil platform. It returned,
however, when the fog went away and we were able to resume our Counting. A
good thing, too, because we found two more single, gray whales to up the total
April 4: (9 whales) Half and half. In the morning there
were two harbor seals splashing in the kelp and foraging just to the east
of us. We could see little
fish jumping to escape the jaws of the seal below. The afternoon brought our
first gray whale of the day. The whale passed us quite close. We were thinking
this might be a cow/calf pair, especially when the whale stayed
inside the oil-barge buoys off Sands Beach. Unfortunately, no calf. While we
were tracking this whale we saw a distant blow that became a super group
of gray whales. They spent a lot of time at the surface blowing and blowing
and blowing; and blowing and blowing and blowing. Six or seven whales in one
place makes a large vapor trail. We settled on six. It seemed like seven, but
bunched that close, we could not be certain. They actually made it almost easy
with a combination of simultaneous and sequential blows observed with the Zeiss
spotting scope. Another single followed and it, too, acted like a possible
cow/calf pair for a moment. No, it was a single juvenile. Our final whale
beat the buzzer and pushed us into overtime as we waited to see if it might
be more than a single juvenile. No, nine was enough for us
for the day.
whales) We Counted our 400th northbound gray whale just before closing
this evening. The pair passed close to Counter Point with a
couple of nice flukes
and some brief rolling in front of the oil platform. Our only other whale sighting
was a group of four gray whales that, like so many before them, swam way outside
2: (1 whale) We had fog drizzle. In six hours and 11 minutes,
we managed four hours and 11 minutes of time on-effort. We officially
northbound gray whale. In the two hours we were off-effort, when we could see
a mile offshore, we saw three northbound gray whales. The problem is we could
not see enough of our survey area for a fair survey.
April 1: (5 whales) Our first sighting of gray whales was a group of four
with a single ahead of a rambunctious trio. All four lit up the horizon with
dozens of blows, rolling, and two spyhops. The group passed Holly, like so
many this year, way on the outside. A juvenile, single, took a couple of spins
around the Point area about a mile out. It was a little confusing, but two
stand-up paddlers and a pair in a kayak
must have enjoyed their bit of magic on this first of April.
31: (15 whales) On the last day of March, we passed the mid-point
in our survey, and it has been a wonderful first half. All our sightings
managed to make their way on the inside of the oil platform, so they are
moving a bit closer to shore. Just a bit, though. As we were watching a
group of five whales that included a pair a couple hundred meters ahead
and a mating trio in the back seat, we where taking bets on which side
they would go. They rolled with many blows, a couple of breaches, and a
fluke, just inside. All our dolphins were in the early morning. A huge group
of commons seemed to intimidate a single gray whale that disappeared for
then popped up just west of the dolphins. As big as a whale is, a thousand
foraging dolphins present a formidable challenge.
30: (9 whales) There were no calves today amongst the nine whales.
A juvenile came very close to the Point on its way west. We tracked it
time before it disappeared,
perhaps intimidated by the boat that traveled right over the whale from head
on. Unfortunately, not everyone knows to look out for whales. Three groups
totaling five whales traveled way outside the oil platform. A mating group
split the distance between Holly and the shore. We got
much better looks. Bottlenose dolphins actively passed back and forth, and at
least a thousand common dolphins did the same, with a bit more splash and
a lot more bodies.
29: (7 including FIRST calf!)
As we are approaching the mid-point of Gray Whales Count 2011, we
have entered a new phase. The fog moved in and out; but with tim outs for
fog, in just over three hours of watching we did see whales. With
the group of five we saw at 4:40
entered the next phase: the cow/calf migration. The pair
swam very close together, switching
sides as they passed relatively close to Counter Point. It was such a relief.
Earlier we had been fearing that with the adult whales traveling three miles
and more offshore: would the cow/calves be so far outside we could not recognize
them? Thankfully, not this pair. Bon Voyage.
28: (13) The morning was warm, with some haze that opened up and
presented us with good observation quality. We found a pair rolling out
near the oil platform but, somehow, we could not track them much beyond
Our second pair was much easier to track as the whales traveled west, a
quarter mile inside the platform. They seemed so close in comparison to
most of the whales we have been tracking. At 11:52 we saw blows at what
must have been five miles away at what looked to be the horizon to the
east. We followed the five whales for one hour
and 59 minutes. No disappearing act for these whales, even as the
wind began to build. Later in the day, two of a threesome tried to hide
behind waves, and all we could see were their blows. A small
juvenile was our final whale of the day.
27: (18) Between 11 and 12:45 we had four groups of northbound
gray whales totaling nine whales. We enjoyed very good observation quality.
It was warm
with almost no wind. The Condor Express called us
while they were watching a trio of gray whales way east of us at 1:00. We
the whales should arrive at Counter Point about 3:00. But, they did not arrive.
At 2:00 the wind started to increase. As we were getting impatient, it was
becoming harder to see. We began thinking we had missed the three gray whales.
it had been that kind of day. For whatever reason, whales were disappearing.
We tracked a morning pair that we first sighted more than three miles east
of us. They were blowing regularly every seven minutes. The last time we
saw them, they were right in front of us, heading west through flat-calm
We could not miss their surfacings. We could not, but we did miss
them. Same thing happened with a group of five. They were there; then they
How could five whales, blowing like crazy, disappear in those conditions?
Maybe that early April Fool's Day magic was occurring again. At 4:00, on
of the day, the Condor Express re-sighted the same whales. Turns
out the threesome was traveling really slowly. There was a bit more mating
on than traveling.
When we saw the whales, they were still three miles east of us, heading into
a 20-knot wind. The Condor Express, which had lost the trio (thinking
they had disappeared) moved southwest and came upon a different group we
identified as four gray whales. Just in time. We closed with kiteboarders
heavy chop in 25-knot winds, whales all over the place, and dolphins
in the center ring. What a happy surprise!
The water around Counter Point was flat-calm all day. The skies above were
with clouds, some misting and around eleven some were spreading
low to the water, obscuring the horizon and any whales traveling along the
outside. We could not track a group of two whales, and we worried that our
day was done. If one cannot see, one cannot count. In a short time, however,
the cloud drifted higher and dissipated. We never did find those two gray
whales again. No matter: they made the Count. And,
the groups kept on comin'. With no fog, we were able to track most of the
groups all the way across our vantage. The parade finally stopped after three.
25: (8) With our first sighting, we blew past 300 for
the Count; with our final sighting, just after noon, we were blown off
the Point. We had to shut
down for the day.
of our gray whales for the day were added in our last hour. A trio was leading
a trio on a trail, that like our first sighting
of the day, led the whales just outside Platform Holly. Had they been any further
offshore, it is likely we would not have been able to make an identification,
or, perhaps, not even seen them. That's why we had to shut down.
We had sprinkles on and off all day and mostly poor observation quality.
we sighted 14 northbound, gray whales and only one of those Unidentified
Large Whales that seem to come out in bad weather. We tracked seven groups
(one was a single). Four traveled inside Platform Holly with three going
outside the platform; but,
not so far outside, so far offshore as they have been traveling in recent
23: (0) Wind and rain at Counter Point today: no Counting.
22: (30) We added 30 northbound, gray whales to our Count.
All except one passed outside (way outside) of Platform Holly, two miles
In past years the vast majority of gray whales have swum inside the Platform
(between Holly and the Point). Not 2011. This is a different year, a La
Niña year with more rain than usual. We had 12 sightings of whales:
four singles, all the rest groups, many demonstrating mating activity.
One pair stopped 2.5 miles out.
Several visitors to Counter Point got a "close-up" look through
the spotting scope of rolling, splashing, tail antics, and some spyhopping.
21: After a day of rain and wind and no Counting, we set a new
record for our survey: 42 whales! Makes you wonder how many whales stormed
We'll never know. Today we were spring-loaded!
20: (zero whales) The last day of winter was stormy in the Santa Barbara
Channel. . .Weather only an ocean critter could love. There was no Counting
today. There is supposed to be some morning rain, then clearing for the first
day of spring. It would be a nice time to see a calf.
whales) Any Counting time today was a gift, and we will take the ten whales
with it!The ten were in three groups, if you can call a single a
group. The other groups were four and five. All three were not quite so far
offshore as most of our gray whales have been. It is a nice change. We are
looking forward to our first calf. It will come, along with a lot of whales
in the coming weeks.
the whales of yesterday, in less than half the time:
Of course, we
would rather have put in a full day. Unfortunately, the combination of 25
knot wind and a lot of sun-lit haze made it impossible to see much
of anything, even as big as a whale. Speaking of big ... what we did see
before the big wind was a big group of whales, at least seven. The group
of gray whales was well offshore,
3 miles. Fortunately, out new spotting scope did its job! There was no
missing where they were, though. We have never seen so many blows in one
place. What made it possible to establish an "at least" group
size was that there were so many simultaneous blows, and there was a slight
a leading pair and the trailing five. And, there were two large groups of
about 1,000 common dolphins that again came quite close to Counter Point.
It was thrilling to see the parade-line
of dolphins blast through the very rough ocean in front of us. Our other
five gray whales were in groups of three and two. We did see the whales
times before the
wind closed out the day.
17: (24 whales) 24 ... We celebrate in a big
way! We saw whales almost all day: 24 northbound gray whales,
plus four Unidentified Large Whales. Our first sighting was ten minutes
and we tracked the five whales for an hour and 40 minutes. We finished
tracking our last sighting about 3:30, when the wind picked up.
It was not big enough to shut us down, just big enough to bring out the
kiteboarders. We had to look though maybe ten kites as we looked east for
whales during the last hour.
16: (7 whales) We spotted a single gray whale as we opened
for the day. It was a large whale that surfaced regularly and showed
flukes a few times.
Almost two hours later the sea was not in good shape and a fog bank was
moving west past Campus Point and approaching Counter Point. We managed
to find a
trio of gray whales, also pretty close, while they were swimming west ahead
of the fog. After the whales passed, we called brief Time Out because we
could not see. After only twenty minutes the fog was dissipating and
we were on-effort
again. In spite of the haze and choppy, whitecap-salted
sea, we were lucky to identify a later trio
of gray whales that boosted our total for the year to 167.
15: (15 whales) We did not see any whales for
the first hour and a half. In the next hour and a half, we Counted 13 northbound
of 3, 5, and 4, plus a single probably trying to catch the action. The
last whale was charging into a pretty strong wind that had made tracking
the conglomeration difficult. Pretty wild! For a time, after they
passed, we enjoyed a bubble of calm. It was as is all those whales had
churned up our ocean. In any case a pair of gray whales
seemed to pop that bubble and they and we were faced with a building wind
and a very messy surface. Even so, it was well after they passed Counter
Point that we saw the simultaneous blows that confirmed they were two — to
make it 15 whales on March 15. Nice. A big ocean swell, with
a 25+ knot wind, and a very choppy sea ended our survey early.
14: (14 whales) Wind cut short our day. But before we were blown off
the Point, we bagged an even dozen northbound, gray whales. All except
the last whales of the day passed outside or near
the oil platform, and it made identification and tracking difficult.
13: (14 whales) What a splendid wrap to week five: all those gray whales,
many, many common dolphins, a pair of harbor seals, a frisky group of bottlenose
dolphins, our first humpback whales, and our first sea otter of the season.
We do not know if it was the one we last year called "Welcome Back
Otter," but welcome back to the kelp in Isla Vista! Our first gray
whale was a single that passed close to Counter Point. Then, there was
a group of four a couple miles offshore where we have been seeing
most of our gray whales. There was some haze and changing light that added
a degree of difficulty. Teamwork made it possible. The afternoon was warm
with no wind and pretty much solid gray whales with some harbor seal sightings
and our lovely otter sighting to round out a
very fine day. Thank you, Counters. Quite a team.
12: (14 whales) Hundreds of common dolphins and diving birds greeted
us this morning, but it was not too long before the gray whales came on
we have noticed this year is that most of the whales seem to be traveling
further offshore, perhaps a half-mile to a mile. We remark also that series
of groups are traveling what appears to be a trail. Follow the leader.
Today, for the first time, we had a mixture of groups far and close. They
still came in waves with individuals and groups arriving at Counter Point
about the same time. It kept us very busy.
11: (10 whales) The devastating, tragic earthquake in Japan
generated a tsunami that approached our coast just after 8:00 AM. We
are located east
and south of Point Conception where we were subject to an advisory, a notch
below the warning for the California coast above Point Conception. Fortunately
for us at Counter Point, it was negligible. Santa Barbara Harbor, further
east was in disarray with considerable damage and churning tides well
into the afternoon. The crowd that gathered at Counter Point did manage to
see a pair of gray whales that we added to our Count as we started our survey
earlier than usual. It was a difficult day at the start, though. There was
a lot of haze and quite a bit of chop in the ocean whipped up by the
wind and maybe a touch of tsunami.
The wind slowly grew stronger as the day went on. We managed to find a lot
of common dolphins, only a couple of bottlenose dolphins, and one harbor
seal. We got a call from the Condor Express at 2:20 when they were way east
They had just left three whales, making their way west in our direction.
By that time, however, we were looking into haze across a Beaufort five sea
(wind about 20 knots). Even so, it lifted us to know that whales were out
It turned out that there were a lot of whales. Two miles offshore looked like
the line-up at LAX. We saw a group of three, then a group of four, then a single
that seemed like it was trying to catch the other whales. It was a fantastic
team effort by the Counters. It was difficult, but we were aided by the sun,
backlighting the blows and the rhythm of the whales that brought them to the
surface together enough to indicate the group size. We were also lucky to see
the bodies to get the species identification in the considerable chop. Even
with the good fortune, it would not have happened without the skillful teamwork.
10: (13 whales) We were holding our breath because NOAA issued
a Small Craft Warning for the afternoon. Fortunately the wind held its
we left the Point at regular, closing time with 14 northbound gray
whales for the day. Through the last three hours, we Counted a trio, a
foursome, and a shy, single that traveled just outside the oil barge, moored
continuing its fill-up that began yesterday.
9: (5 whales) With
very little wind, we had lots of crazy mirages, several bottlenose dolphins
(early and late) along with many, many common dolphins (early, close and late,
distant). We saw a harbor seal many times. We had zero Beaufort sea state,
so anything that broke the surface "stuck out." We tracked two, single,
gray whales northbound and an animated trio for more than an hour for each
group. See photo above.
8: (17 whales) Far
different from yesterday! We had a little wind (not such a good thing)
to start, but we also started with a whale blow
and that is far different and
a very good thing. The blows continued all day, fortunately not the wind. Our
only problem was heat waves mixed with some haze that produced some weird
shapes and indefinite horizons. In spite of that, we managed to find and identify
17 gray whales going northbound. Sorta upped the average after some
no-whale days. There was only one single and that whale passed us about a mile
and a quarter offshore. All the rest were groups, ranging from the fivesome
that got us going
to the pair that followed not far behind. Between 11:30 and 2:00 we
Counted seven more gray whales: two trios and the aforementioned single.
All the whales were big, and most were far from shore,
flirting with those mirages.
At 2:30 we found blows quite far away and moving slowly left to right, just
in from the wavy horizon. In the two hours we tracked them, we determined the
group consisted of two large whales with a juvenile tagging along, usually
100 meters back. Throughout, we had discussions of calves and whales to come.
7: (0 whales) No counting today. GALE WARNING.
6: (0 whales) We saw no whales on this short day. We were shut
out by weather.
5: (5 whales) From opening until 2:30 our observation quality
was very good, and there almost nothing to observe. No cetaceans. After
is hard to imagine. At 3:00, whales blows close in brought cheers
from Counters. Whales, yes. Gray whales. But, gray whales going south.
It was a pair of mature whales making an uncommon choice to go south through
the nearshore of the Santa Barbara Channel. It seemed to us the route was
of no matter. They were engaged in slow rolling and entwined as they slowly
moved east toward Campus Point. At 4:00 we rated the visibility at two
miles, but at with an assist from the late afternoon sun, backlighting
the blows, we found a group of whales
maybe four miles out. With the new Zeiss spotting scope that has been lent
to us by a very caring and generous friend, we were able to make the ID:
northbound, gray whales. These whales were a long way from us, and we were
ecstatic to add two to the Count. An intrepid Counter continued the tracking
for a half-hour and was rewarded with a series of blows from the outside
group of five whales!
4: (2 whales) At 9:30 we spotted a pair of gray whales two miles
out. With no dolphins in their path, they unhurriedly made their way west,
platform. There were no more whales in our day.
3: (2 whales) More than 2,000 common dolphins spread out as
far as we could see in every direction. Incredibly, even more joined
One group came flying in from the west. When they found the fish, it
was all business: no more leaps, head down, echo-locator at full power.
They came within a quarter-mile of the Point; close enough to ID at least
that group as Long-beaked common dolphins; and close enough to see fish
flying ahead of those long beaks as the dolphins surged across our Point.
It went on for two and a half hours. Our attention was interrupted by
a single, large, gray whale who was
maintaining a low profile while swimming against the dolphin stream.
It had to be intimidating, perhaps like approaching a hornet swarm. We
tracked the whale through the oil-barge buoys, and hoped there would
be a bit less drama on the next leg of the whale's journey north. Later
a small, juvenile gray whale popped up in front of us. The whale almost
hit the shallow end of the Point, then seemed to push off to deeper water
on its way south.
2: (2 whaes) It took
most of the day to get in just over three hours of survey with about as many
Time Outs as the last two minutes of a football game. We stopped almost as
soon as we started when umbrellas were not enough and fog ate the oil platform
right in front of us. AFter the third time out, we saw blows in the east.
It was beautiful. There was nothing out there except two gray whales gently
west. The blows were tall, steady, and heart-shaped. The larger whale fluked
gracefully before each terminal dive. The companion arched, but no fluke.
Perhaps it was the darkness, the clouds, the gray water. Whatever, we felt
like it was just us and them, and then they were gone, on their way toward
Point Conception. Not too long after that, we were gone too. More rain.
1: (8 whales) About 11:00 the sky started to clear and the east
wind settled down. At 11:30 we saw our first whale. We soon realized it
and we tracked
the slow moving, rolling pair for almost an hour and a half, just about the
time a single arrived amidst a small group of bottlenose dolphins. The gray
whale appeared to surface from directly under two dolphins! A trio of gray
whales appeared due south, a long way out. The sea surface was like glass
and the sun was behind the whales so we were able to easily track the group
of quite-large whales heading west until a new pair of gray whales grabbed
our attention in the east. They were a bit confusing with long downtimes
and then multiple surfacings, sometimes with visible blows, sometimes no
blows. We entered them as two, but there could have been a third in that
mix. It was an exciting and challenging three hours around mid-day, then
not much except a cold afternoon wind.
Feb. 28: (8
whales) The last day of February was further indication that the migration
flow has begun. We saw eight northbound gray whales and that made twenty-one
for the past two days, a nice pace for this time. Our whales came in pairs
with two pairs at mid-day (one at noon and one at one). Both pairs were only
a mile off our Point. One of the latter whales
had large scar on its back just before the knuckles. It could have been from
an encounter with a boat. Just after 2:00 we saw two pairs traveling together,
way outside, more than three miles offshore. All four surfaced and blew in
Feb. 27: (13
whales)Today was a great, gray-whale day. We started with five rambunctious
blew a lot and changed order for the entire hour and a half of tracking.
a great way to start the morning. We found a trio of gray whales at 11:30
and tracked them for an hour. Then, more dolphins. . .then another trio
of gray whales. Just before five, we saw the blows of the final pair, more
than two miles from Counter Point: two
northbound gray whales that brought our total for the day to 13. All our
whales today were northbound gray whales. None were singles, and all were
pretty far out,
with only one group going just inside the oil platform
on its way west. A great day. We have a migration ...
Feb. 25: (0
whales) Rain Rain RAIN Rainnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn.
Feb. 21: (2
whales) We had a presidential day on Counter Point: full of hope, with a
bit of wind
the end of the day. Right away we saw a blow from a young gray whale heading
south. The whales was sandwiched by foraging dolphins: a few bottlenose on
the inside and outside,
a massive group of common dolphins, at least 2,000 animals, spread out
in an area 2 miles by 1.5 miles. Later we saw the blows of the northbound
pair about three miles out and a blow and fluke from a southbound gray whale
about two miles out. Yes, the migration is still in transition. An awesome
day, indeed, fit for a holiday!
Feb. 18: (0
whales) We were not able to give it a try. A very strong wind circling from
the east was
producing very heavy chop with numerous "horses," as the English
say. It is the Brits who are known for understatement, but our term "whitecaps" is
too static. We get questions about the whales when we have rough seas like
this. Yes, the surface is rough, but twenty to thirty feet under the water
it is calm and that is where the whales are most of the time. They do have
to come to the surface to breath, but they seem to manage just fine. We,
on the other hand, do not manage counting very well. Rain makes it pretty
hard to see and the wind blows the whale blow away from the animal so we
cannot see enough whale to identify it. In very rough seas, if we are counting,
we total up a lot of Unidentified Large Whales.
Feb. 15: (0
whales) Even in the less-than-ideal conditions, we do not believe any
snuck by. It is early. Next week we should have more sightings.
Feb. 14: (2
whales) While the gray whale migration is beginning to slowly kick in, dolphins
center stage with gusto and flourish! After this exciting opening act, two
pretty-big gray whales surfaced a half-mile off the Point and gracefully
fluked as they swam west, northbound towards Point
Conception. In a flash we had doubled our Count to four. Happy Valentine's
Feb. 12: (1
whale) A single, northbound gray-whale snorkeled and almost made it past
being detected. Almost. That was quite a feat in the Beaufort zero,
glossy surface. We could see sea lions at two miles until about three when
a soft breeze brought scattered whitecaps.
Feb. 11: (1
perfect weather on Day Five, we saw our
first northbound gray whale — the first of
many fine whales to come.
southbound gray whales. Our first cruised softly through the glassy water:
three nice blows and a fluke and down. We saw three breathing
cycles before we turned our attention to a rampaging line of common dolphins,
maybe 500 or more. They churned up the water from left to right across
our vantage before returning right to left in the afternoon.
Feb. 8: On
day two of the Count, volunteers saw five gray whales, all pretty good-sized
heading south to Mexico — and an appearance by our dolphin
queen, "Quasimoda," with an entourage of six fellow bottlenose
dolphin. In our seven surveys, we have seen her every year, and it has been
image is by Scott Leon in 2005 from the Condor Express: Quasimoda with
May 8: Mothers'
Day and a bouncy ocean are reason enough for a calf to leap
with joy ...
4: This gentle mom/calf pair hardly disturbed
of two busy weeks!
17: A mother nudges her calf as they return to Counter
8: Big whale, little Toot
3: The most exciting line-up was up in the air: intricate
lines of birds, changing formation on the fly. Thousands of
Brants, many hundreds of Surf scoters, and
many Loons were taking advantage of the light wind migrating north, from left
to right across Counter Point.
28: A small juvenile was our final whale of the day.
9: Perhaps it is good that all today's whales arrived pretty
far offshore because the
gigantic oil barge, filling up with oil, filled up the buoys
west of us.
8, 2011: Old dolphin friend Quasimoda & her calf
Mr. Smith and volunteers interviewed
at Counter Point on KCLU Radio, broadcast March 15, 2010.
Outlook from Coal Oil Point ("Counter
Photo Michael H. Smith