Field Notes 2012
Goleta, California, USA
(Coal Oil Point, a.k.a."Counter Point")
Director Michael H. Smith of Gray Whales Count reports daily until May 20. Volunteers survey the whales through the nearshore of the Channel Islands.
May 20: SUMMARY and THANKS [0 whales; 8:00 hours. Total whales this census: 959/236]
Our smiles are big today at the conclusion of our 8th survey. The fog eclipsed our day, and, unfortunately, we did not have an opportunity to greet just one more mother and calf pair. Even so, our smiles are big.
It was a most remarkable year, astonishing. We kept hearing reports from those who had been to the lagoons that were then tempered by more cautious predictions that "it might be almost as good as last year." Actually, that sounded pretty good to us. In 2010 we counted 33 calves. Last year, 2011, we counted 120 calves. We were looking forward to something on that order. Instead, we almost doubled last year's calf count. It was a great year for us and even better for Gray whales.
I, as Project Coordinator, am so grateful to every one of our record number of Counters: Supervisors, Interns training to be supervisors, and Observers who make up a terrific team of people who pay attention and care.
Because we rely so much on the student body of the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), we face the reality of term limits. Students graduate and move on with their lives. We are losing two exceptional interns, two exceptional people: Allie Cope and Erin McCann. Thank you Allie and Erin. I will miss you. Thank you for everything.
Our collaborators share this work, expand the questions, and encourage more meaningful results.
Huge thank-yous to:
Cris Sandoval, Director of UCSB's Coal Oil Point Reserve
John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research Collective
John Hildebrand, Sean Wiggins, and Lauren Roche, Scripps Whale Acoustic Laboratory
Wayne Perryman, Dave Weller, and John Durban, NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center
Each day I write and send information of the day to Jane Duden of Journey North who gathers and makes sense of similar information from all along the migration route. She then creates reports of the whales' progress for all who care to read and enjoy and learn from. Kids respond to our work as it is being done. It is remarkable work that she does. We all thank her so much.
We have received support from very generous foundations, businesses, and caring individuals, especially an anonymous foundation administered by the Orange County Community Foundation. Truly, you have been our foundation.
Since our second year, our intern program has been supported by the Associated Students of UCSB Coastal Fund. It is a win-win association with parallel goals for our environment, particularly our ocean environment.
For two years we have been honored with significant support from the Pacific Life Foundation, and the James Ryerson Environmental Fund, administered by the Santa Barbara Foundation.
Counters have given even more than time and their eyes. Scott Savidge and Stan Roberts have gathered support for Gray Whales Count from their employers, respectively FLIR Corporation of Goleta and United Launch Alliance of Centennial, Colorado.
We are especially grateful to Fred Benko, owner of the Condor Express, and their truly caring captains Mat Curto and Dave Beezer.
Danni Storz, who was our first intern, is now our Operations Manager. Believe me, our operations are now being managed. She and I have received more than guidance and counsel from Mary Toothman. She has given her heart to Gray Whales Count.
They are many, many more who have done so much … one in particular, Carol Rae, who has been a part of this effort from the beginning. She will not rest until everyone she can possible reach knows about the ocean, marine mammals, whales, and Gray Whales Count.
That's why we are smiling.
May 19: [2 whales, incl. 1 calf; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 959/236] We have not yet heard the whale-lady sing ... Fog interrupted our day twice, but there was enough of an opening to admire our 236th cow/calf pair. The curtain of fog closed round them as they swam through where the mooring buoys used to be. Can't believe tomorrow is our last day of our 2012 Count: the most pleasant surprise of all has been the whales, especially the calves.
May 18: [0 whales; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 957/235] We did not see a Gray whale again today. I guess that means something … Maybe we will catch some late travelers on our final weekend.
May 17: [0 whales; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 957/235] It had to happen sometime. Today was the first, full day since just after we started that we had no Gray-whale sightings. And, it is an interesting coincidence that the same situation occurred last year on May 17. I guess it is about that time.
No, we do not think we have seen the last calf, but the rush is probably over. If so, it works for us because Sunday is our last counting day. Of course, we do not matter. We would certainly cheer the notion of more calves passing by not counted by Gray Whales Count. In fact, it would be wonderful. And, I am sure that a lot of folks who have checked in with us on the Point during our Count would love the opportunity to let us know what we missed.
May 16: [8 whales, incl. 4 calves; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 957/235] A lot of whales in one place at the same time …Our first Gray whales sighting of the day was a group of six whales, three calves with their mothers, storming through Slip Stream, past Counter Point, and inside where the buoys used to be, and along Sands/Ellwood and places west. Later in the day we saw a single pair with a mother who fluked after at least five surfacings. We don't remember such a display.
May 15: [5 whales, incl. 2 calves; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 949/231]
Our first Gray whale was a single juvenile, late heading north, but on its way and looking' good (much better to us than wind). Our second Gray whale brought along her calf, or maybe it was the other way around. The calf wanted to explore each and every finger of kelp. Above mom is surfacing in Slip Stream, the path through the Devereux Kelp just east of Counter Point. He calf is right there, underwater. These two took a very long time to get to the Point and past us. Yes, we enjoyed every second, especially because we are in our last week of a truly extraordinary survey. We don't want it to end.
So, another pair showed up. This pair had a tougher time through our area. A commercial fishing boat went right over the top of them. After the boat was gone, a helicopter at an altitude of a bout 100 feet, flew right over them and blasted them with prop noise. The whales seemed OK, if a bit shyer.
May 14: [4 whales, incl. 2 calves; 3:22 hours. Total whales to date: 944/229] Good news: Sun and cow/calf pairs continuing to arrive at Counter Point.
Bad news: Wind and disappearing whales and more wind that blew us off the Point.
Worse news: We had a report of three cow/calf pairs that we might have counted, but we weren't there long enough to count them.
Good news, again: We are truly excited that the calves are continuing. It's nice if we can count them, but nicer that there are so many.
May 13: [3 whales, incl. 1 calf; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 940/227] We only saw one Gray whale calf today and we did not see much. Earlier, however, we saw a lot of a single Gray whale that breached four times after a sportfishing boat traveled right over it when the whale was submerged. The boaters never saw the whale.
May 12: [14 whales, incl. 7 calves; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 937/226] Only three sightings of Gray whales today, yet the parade of pairs is not slowing down: they are bunching up.
We had a single pair at 11:30 a.m.. At 3:04 we saw a lot of blows at Campus Point. Three pairs charged towards us, together. And, at 4:02 three more pairs wandered all over the place before passing Counter Point. Two of the pairs rushed through Slip Stream. While waiting for the third pair, we "lost" the first four whales. We found them with the lagging pair that had gone outside the kelp at Devereux kelp. Evidently, the first whales circled counter-clockwise, back around to greet the third pair head-on outside the kelp. Very confusing, and quite a show. Adding to the confusion and excitement, a California sea lion was in the whale-mix.
May 11: [19 whales, incl. 9 calves; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 923/219] For the morning shifts our gray included only a hint of whale. The other 98% was low clouds, drizzle, and dark, low-contrast ocean and sky. The 2% was a Gray whale cow/calf pair the we glimpsed, just barely. That sighting began at 9:18. Our next sighting of any kind of animal was at 1:01, just into our afternoon shift. This pair of whales began a string that provide a whole lot of Gray (whale) in the afternoon. We concluded the day with 19 Gray whales, including nine calves (including the one from early morning). At 1:37 an amazing group of eight whales showed up at Campus Point. We knew it was a lot of whales before they got to us, but we thought they might be three pairs. Then, two pairs went though Slip Stream (the channel through the Devereux kelp to our left) and two pairs went outside the kelp at the same time. We looked at each other … Wow!
Another big group followed an hour after the eight were past us. A pair led what we concluded was another five whales. The seven whales might not have been traveling together because they acted very different. The five trail whales were a tightly bound group that included two calves. They could have been three pairs. We could not be certain because they kept surfacing together in what looked like a twisting ball of whales. We do know that two calves were in the mix, and maybe images will help us confirm or deny our suspicions. A problem is the grayness. It will be hard to recognize details (markings).
May 10: [3 whales, incl. 1 calf; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 904/210] We expect things to slow down before the end of the survey. However, we know this is the year of the unexpected (meaning: we don't think we are done yet.) The weather changes every day. Today, we had not-so good observation quality, but it was adequate, and a counter managed to spot blow at Campus Point when it was pretty hard to see Campus Point. It was our only sighting and we are not 100% that we figured it out. We know that there were two big whales and a very little one, including a cow/calf pair. Maybe there was a second calf? We could not be sure.
May 9: [10 whales, incl. 5 calves; 8:13 hours. Total whales to date: 901/209] Today we saw Heady, calf number 209, and mother Moonshadow (whales 900 and 901). Their photo is at right. We have no idea why the cow is called Moonshadow, but it was very obvious why the calf is Heady. We saw that head pop up, twenty or thirty times as they traveled very slowly past Counter Point. What fun.
This pair was the fifth of the day. The second was a pair of pairs and they too had a lot of surface time. The pair following the double pairs was the exact opposite. They surface almost never. Perhaps they were trying to catch the four whales only a mile and a half ahead. At the compare rates of speed, it would not take long. We had possibly the best observation quality we have enjoyed in a long time; and it was warm.
May 8: [4 whales, incl. 2 calves; 2:47 hours. Total whales to date: 891/204] A short day today: It doesn't usually happen that our counting is confined to the late afternoon. After 2:00 the fog cleared and almost instantly we had a pair of Gray whales outside Slip Stream. Momma burst to the surface with her calf inside and we snapped to attention and wondered if this was the fourteenth pair to cross Counter Point today or the first. We have no idea. They were a difficult pair: Apparently momma did not want to be the last whale to Alaska. They did not surface much (the calf surfaced a bit more), and they were on their way before we knew what hit us.
Our second and last pair arrived at Campus Point just after 4:00. In contrast, they were in no hurry. They moved slowly toward us with regular/irregular surfacings. We noticed that mom had taught her calf to snorkel. The calf continued to surface after mom. Mom blew a mighty blow and went down. The calf surfaced with a tender puff and only the blowhole visible until at last it arched for a picture.
It is fun having whales at the end of the day. Gray whales were the only animals sighted on our short shift.
May 7: [7 whales, incl. 3 calves; 8:22 hours. Total whales to date: 887/202] Perhaps it is not the most glamorous shot (see photo at right, May 7), but it is the best we have of calf number 200 swimming by Counter Point this morning. Momentous! It looks like the calf is sporting a silver necklace. If we could, we'd make it gold. Thinking about how good a year this has been, we harkened back two years to 2010 when we totaled only 33 calves for the entire survey. Vive la différence! The weather (haze, fog, and then wind) made observation difficult, but we got to see what we wanted to see and we are pretty sure only seven whales came by. Three were cow/calf pairs—bringing our total to 202 and counting.
May 6: [18 whales, incl. 9 calves; 8:13 hours. Total whales to date: 880/199] We had a lot of whales and quite a lot of Bottlenose dolphins. We like to think of it as a celebration for the young ones. Many of the Bottlenose were escorting Gray whales past the Point with what we hope was good cheer. All but one of our Gray whale pairs was sighted before noon. The last group was a mix of three pairs and they spent a good deal of time at the surface at Campus Point, then at Counter Point, and then beyond where the buoys used to be. Our last Gray whales of the day, including calf number 199, arrived just after four. What a year.
May 5: [10 whales, incl. 5 calves; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 862/190]] Cinco de Mayo is a Mexican holiday, and so it is fair for our Mexican Gray whales to slow down a tad and enjoy the ride. We saw five pairs distributed pretty much evenly across the day. Some suggested the parade might be getting very near the end. However, yesterday was not so long ago, and we counted 14 pairs. We do not think that was the finale. Of course, it does have to end sometime. We hope not yet. Like the end of yesterday, our first pair was led through Slip Stream by a small group of Bottlenose dolphins.
May 4: [29 whales, incl. 14 calves; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 852/185] Another remarkable day on Counter Point, in what has become an extraordinary survey for us, and, thankfully, the whales …We counted 29 northbound Gray whales,28 of which were cow/calf pairs. Except for a minor lull at mid-day, it was whales all day, and some kayakers and SUPs had some thrilling encounters with the migrating whales.
Killer whales are in the Channel, way east of us. We have not heard of any attacks on Gray whales.
May 3: [16 whales, incl. 8 calves; 8:21 hours. Total whales to date: 823/171]
Fog and low clouds have (temporally) gone away, and we enjoyed eight hours and 21 minutes counting eight Gray whale cow/calf pairs. We got a lot of face-time, and one exhibitionist calf displayed most of its body with four impressive breaches just to our right.
May 2: [15 whales, incl. 7 calves; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 807/163] See the photo of a jolly, young whale smiling in spite of the long swim ahead. Perhaps his mother is teaching her calf to enjoy the journey. This calf was part of a trio of pairs that turned inside where the buoys used to float. The whales frolicked in the waves at Sands and Ellwood for an hour: reason to smile. In addition to seven cow/calf pairs plus one, we saw a couple of Bottlenose dolphins and three Harbor seals in the Isla Vista kelp.
May 1: [12 whales, incl. 5 calves; 8:00 hours] We experienced a bit of a slowdown in today's 8 hours with fair observation quality. We did not miss any whales today during our survey: We saw12 northbound Gray whales of which six were calves.
The first group was an exciting group to watch. There were three pairs and spent a lot of time on the surface, blowing and rolling. We saw lots of heads, flippers, and flukes, and probably got some adequate photo-ID images. One image (above) shows one of the calves surfacing and diving in front of one of the oil-barge mooring buoys. We have talked about the fact that Venoco will no longer be using an oil barge to transport oil from Platform Holly. Instead the have built a pipeline to care the oil along the Gaviota Coast to a refinery. We are very glad that the barge will no longer make us worry about a disastrous oil spill. Unfortunately, no more barge means no more reason for mooring buoys.
April 30: [26 whales, incl. 13 calves; 7:57 hours. Total whales to date: 780/150] There is no reason to expect this surge of calves will stop any time soon. We had another slow morning with not-so-great visibility. We had plenty of low clouds, so it was dark and cold and winter-lik. At 11:30 our world changed. No, the sun did not come out. Whales. Lots of whales. A continuos parade of pairs that included one pair of pairs. The pause did not come until 2:20. And, the pause did not last long: 40 minutes. We ended our day three minutes early as we were tracking the last of thirteen cow/calf pairs. We had some difficulty seeing them after they passed Counter Point because of the drizzly rain.
April 29: [24 whales, incl. 11 calves; 8:00 hours. Total whales to date: 754/137] The highlight of our morning — after, of course, a wonderful kelp-loving mother and calf pair of Gray whales — was sighting two blimps for the second time this year. We sighted a new pair about 12:20. We are grateful we got the whole day in because it was whales, whales, whales all the rest of the day: non-stop! There were two singles and all the rest were cow/calf pairs, all single cow/calf pairs except one pair of pairs. And, the single pairs were sometimes only a half-mile behind each other. We did not see them as grouped, but they may have been loosely associated.
April 28: [15 whales, incl. 7 calves; 8:14 hours] The whales just keep on keepin' on, and we have been launched into a stratosphere without a Google map. We counted 15 northbound Gray whales today, and our totals for whales and calves are greater than last year's totals—which was greater than any complete survey before that. And, the nice thing is there are many more days to count whales going through the nearshore of the Santa Barbara Channel.
April 27: [34 whales, incl. 17 calves; 8:06 hours] I A jubilee day … smashing records … music to our ears … one more time!
Just before 9:00 we saw our first blows, and then a lot more blows. As we scrambled, The Condor Express called to say there were at least 4 pairs in front of the Santa Barbara Harbor. That is 11 miles from us, and indicated that we were going to spend our day counting a lot of whales. We did. Thirty four whales, all Gray whale cow/calf pairs arranged various groups and behaving in various ways.
It has been a fantastic survey, lots of whales, lots of calves. Unless everything stops tonight we are going to count more total northbound whales and more calves than ever before; Last year was biggest; yet we are on the brink of BIGGER than biggest (for us).
We have never experienced so many multiple pairs as we have seen this year. And, they are behaving differently. Last year, even with a lot of whales on the train to Alaska, the cow/calf pairs hung around sometimes. They splashed and played and turned around and waved. This year not so much. It is pretty straight ahead ... so much so, that some days they cruise by on the exact same, narrow path. They approach along the kelp, cut through Slip Stream, veer closer to the shore in front of us, run into the kelp outside the breakers at Sands, then turn left to circle clockwise around the kelp and track inside the mooring buoys to Ellwood. Yes, this is the basic cow/calf trail, but we have never seen the traffic all cruise by in the same lane like this. Of course we wonder how they manage to do that …
April 26: [12 whales, incl. 56 calves; 5:04 hours] It was easy for us to track our 102nd calf through the chop and glare of a twenty-plus knot wind. All we had to do was follow the bouncing white ball.
We arrived at the Point in rain,but it cleared by 9 and we were counting on schedule. For whatever reason, we did have some difficulty with the groups of pairs. Even though four blows shot into the air at once, we thought there might be more. We could not be sure if the trail pair was actually two pairs or just wandering. We'll have to examine the images to be more certain. Longer than usual downtimes, and unexpected routes, added intrigue, but we managed to sort the rest out and pass one hundred calves for the season. This time last year — a year in which we counted 120 calves — we had "only" 42 calves. We'll have to wait until the end to offer comparisons between the surveys. Even so, I think it is fair to say we are enjoying a pretty good run. .The wind closed us down early
April 25: [14 whales, incl. 5 calves; 5:18 hours] We started with a huge group of migrating Loons, more than 2,000 easily. They passed Counter Point and there were still more of the group approaching Campus Point two miles to the east. And, more kept coming through the morning. It was a loony day in more ways:
We ended with seriously strange weather. There was no wind, then it was blowing thirty knots, then raining. This kind of storm is not the norm in Southern California.It was mostly heavily overcast, yet we still had mirages and distortions that warped islands and oil platforms. Between the birds and blowing, we had whales disappear on glassy seas; many singles (some might have been hiding a calf); long downtimes, leaving little opportunity to photograph the groups; and one cow/calf pair that traveled by two miles offshore. In addition to fourteen (we think) gray whales, including five (we think) calves, we saw an unidentified whale and five very identifiable Bottlenose dolphins before we were so abruptly interrupted.
April 24: [25 whales, incl. 12 calves; 8 hours] So many whales were going slowly past Counter Point, iIt really was something to behold. It was flat calm all day, with some sun and brilliant colors everywhere. Spellbinding.
The cow/calf pairs started right after we opened, one right after another until a pair of pairs went through Slip Stream, just after 11:30. Two more single pairs followed before three pairs, somewhat strung out and moving back and forth, took the short-cut throughout the kelp and arrived in front of us. One more pair almost got by us, but we managed to see it, track it, and watch it reach the kep before the buoys and turn around, giving us a rare left-side photo-ID. We saw our last whale at 3:00. Had the ocean not been glassy smooth, we might have missed it. It barely broke the surface a half-mile out. It was a young juvenile, alone, making its way. It did not look like it was in trouble, but we can't say is was particularly robust either.
April 23: [23 whales, incl. 11 calves; 7 hours] Counter Point was soaking in foggy drizzle, and it looked like we might not get a chance to count today. Fortunately, we are no better at predicting the weather than those folks who get paid to guess every night. By 10 AM the fog and drizzle were gone and low clouds and calm seas were a perfect backdrop for whales. It helped that they were numerous and close right from our hour-delayed start.
The first sighting was a mess of whales, four pairs emerging from Slip Stream. Almost immediately, another Gray whale cow/calf pair headed through Slip Stream and prepared for its official portrait. No time to even set up the Count Board before another two pairs were perfecting their smiles. In under an hour, seven cow/calf pairs (14 whales) traveled west past Counter Point. Set up the Count Board! An hour later we added another pair to the board … before lunch.
About 1:30 a big blow lit up beyond Campus Point. It was a single Gray whale on its way north. We are mostly seeing cow/calf pairs, but singles and even groups of adults and juveniles are still in the mix. Our last group of Gray whales was three magnificent pairs. They spent a lot of surface time blowing and blowing and blowing. No problem tracking these whales.
April 22: [27 whales, incl. 13 calves; 8:18 hours] Happy Earth Day! Mother Nature smiled on the Santa Barbara Channel, perhaps in celebration, and gave us a Monterey day: low clouds, flat seas, and enough Gray whales to require extra time, all on the clock. It was another Super Sunday: 27 northbound Gray whales, including 13 calves. What a rush this has been. We have counted a lot of calves in a short period of time, and they have been almost charging through the Channel. No dilly-dallying for this crowd.
April 21: [8 whales, incl. 4 calves; 0 hours] Today, during Earth Day Celebration weekend, we decided to see what we could see in very bad (but much better than yesterday) conditions. There was too much fog and too little visibility to conduct a fair survey, but there were windows, and at times those windows were filled with whales: eight whales, including four calves for the almost eight hours we spent looking at the fog.
So how does that work: eight whales counted in, officially, zero time counting?The answer is that they were off-effort sightings during what we call Time Out. Counters stationed at Counter Point identified the Gray whales, tracked them as best they could, entered the data as off-effort sightings, and counted the whales.The whales are part of THE COUNT, which is our raw data. At the end of the year, the data are analyzed with attention to observation conditions, among other factors; and these off-effort sightings are dropped, along with, for instance, sightings made in 5 Beaufort conditions. We do this to limit our survey to conditions that give us an opportunity to record all whales present at the time. Since fog greatly obscures our ocean, there could have been other whales that we did not have an opportunity to Count.
April 20: [0 whales, incl. 0 calves; 0 hours] Gorgeous day in Santa Barbara and Goleta … bright sunshine and sparkling blue sky. But it didn't happen on the beach. We had fog so dense that at times we could not see the surf. It is frustrating knowing that calves are streaming by and we are unable to document their presence.
April 19: [15 whales, incl. 7 calves; 5:25 hours] When it wasn't foggy (and little bit when it was) we saw 15 Gray whales (plus two we could not identify because we saw only blows, once). Of the whales we did see, seven were calves, and we know of another cow/calf pair we just missed. The Condor Express was out trolling through the mist just off Counter Point. We got a call that there was a pair almost to the buoys. But we could not see either the buoys or the Condor Express. There was no way we were going to see whales.
April 18: [13 whales, incl. 6 calves; 8:37 hours] We extended our fun again as we were tracking two pairs past five o'clock. We had a really diverse group of whales today. One pair seemed to be on a mission, maybe late for dinner or trying to keep ahead of a feeding group of Common dolphins. Another pair stayed a bit offshore and did not go along Sands beach. Our first pair included mother "Flossie the Fluker" who showed off her tail each chance she got.
April 17: [10 whales, incl. 5 calves; 8 hours] What's more fun than ending a full day with whales? Having those whales be Gray whale calves acting like kittens with a ball of yarn. We have not seen this many heads, fins, and flukes in quite a while, as the two cow/calf pairs skirted the surf and impressed the local dudes. Very nice finale to another beautiful day. These four contrasted markedly with the pair ahead of them: very slow travel. Both whales surfaced a lot, and it seemed mom was letting her shy calf control the pace. The final four were really the first of our calves this year to display extraordinary exuberance (goofy behavior).
April 16: [20 whales, incl. 10 calves; 8:52 hours] The hardest thing we do day in and day out is determining how many whales are in a group. What may be second hardest is leaving Counter Point. Today, we happily, excitedly got both right. We were in extra time documenting two cow/calf pairs that were sort of together then not. It was fun stringing out the time with the whales. Five minutes later, while packing up, we saw an explosion of Bottlenose dolphins and then an explosive blow from a Gray whale: a mother with her calf that as they moved west became two mothers with two calves.
April 15: [36 whales, incl. 16 calves; 8 hours] Rock and Roll! We set a Counter Point record for Gray whale northbound calves sighted in one day: sweet 16.
It started at 9:01 a.m. and continued all day. One cow/calf pair seemed to want to stay right in front of us the entire day. We sighted it, tracked it, and lost it. We lost the pair because the whales didn't go anywhere. They had long downtimes right in front of us. The water was still and clear. More than once we saw the mother and calf gently gliding towards the surface and quietly breathing right in front of us. Beautiful. Perhaps the surprise of day was the single whales chugging past about 1.5 miles offshore. Many of the pairs were pairs of pairs. And, often, however they were matched, they had another pair or group of pairs closely following. This year we are testing the feasibility of taking photoID images of the mother and calf pairs. It was very hard today because of all the action. Where does one focus attention? This was just a fabulous day, and all the Counters, especially Kristel Ma and John Koopman, did terrific work. They maintained the datasheet and coordinated the Counters as they tracked and reported positions. Hard work, and very, very fun!
April 14: [0 whales, 0 hours] Really big wind and really big disappointment for Counters. The effort was canceled today, again.
April 13: [0 whales, 0 hours] On a scary Friday the thirteenth, we had rare lightning and thunder plus rain and wind.
April 12: [0 whales, 4:42 hours] Just before the rain, 300 Common dolphins splashed by so we avoided a cetacean shutout on our short day. We had hoped to get a full day in before the storm, but we were not so lucky.
April 11: [11 whales, 8:04 hours] What a wonderful, surprising day on Counter Point—another gorgeous day with lots of color, clouds, and just a bit of wind.
About 9:30 a.m. we saw a single Gray whale. A minute later we saw a trio of Gray whales much further out. Somehow, the single was never seen again. We had no trouble tracking the three Gray whales for twenty-five minutes. They we on the surface quite often until they weren't and we lost them too. It likely had to do with the build up of wind, but we did not think it was that bad that we would lose four whales in the Goleta Triangle. We could not find any more whales until 4:30 when we we saw cascading blows three-plus miles east of Counter Point. There were a lot of whales out there. They almost never stopped. It was like painting a bridge: by the time they all finished blowing it was time to start again. We are certain of seven, and there could have been more. A very lucky day: eleven Gray whales, including our finale of seven.
April 10: [2 whales incl. 1 calf, 8 hours] The day before what could be wet Wednesday was a very beautiful Tuesday, some of the best observation quality in a long time. We managed Common dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins, a Harbor seal, and only one sighting of Gray whales. It was productive, and eventful. We were excited to count our seventh calf, but concerned that as the pair arrived a quarter mile off the Isla Vista kelp, the whales were confronted with a commercial fishing boat heading right at them and then traveling over the submerged whales. The calf surfaced a minute later, seeming to be just fine. But, mom also seemed to want to get along, with no lingering along the way. We saw them through a few more surfacings as they headed west outside the mooring buoys.
We have had far less boat traffic this year now that the ocean in front of us is a Marine Protected Area, established by California Department of Fish & Game on January 1, 2012. Even so, interactions do occur. It is the life of Gray whales, migrating so near to the coast. The more boaters are aware that there are whales present, the better chance the whales have. Fortunately, the word is getting out.
April 9: [2 whales incl. 1 calf, 8 hours] It was a very beautiful Tuesday, with some of the best observation quality in a long time. We managed Common dolphins, Bottlenose dolphins, a Harbor seal—and only one sighting of Gray whales. We were excited to count our seventh calf, but concerned that as the pair arrived a quarter mile off the Isla Vista kelp, the whales were confronted with a commercial fishing boat heading right at them and then traveling over the submerged whales. The calf surfaced a minute later, seeming to be just fine. But, mom also seemed to want to get along, with no lingering along the way. We saw them through a few more surfacings as they headed west outside the mooring buoys.
April 8: [5 whales: 0 calves, 5:26 hours] We were expecting sun on this day before the storm and excited to get to the Point. We were greeted by fog.
Each day we talk about now being in the calf phase of what is actually two separate migrations: the general population and the cow/calf pairs. During the general-population migration, we look for whales as much as three, sometimes four, miles offshore. The cow/calf pairs go much, much closer to us. The ones we see are not more than a mile-and-a-half offshore, and often no more than a half to less than a quarter-mile offshore. With that in mind, we shift our focus east to Campus Point where we expect to see whales coming around that point, along the kelp to right in front of us and proceeding along Sands Beach, inside the mourning buoys on their way west.
So … our first Gray whales were a pair at least two miles offshore to the south. This was not a cow/calf pair; rather, a pair of mature whales in what is a continuing, overlapping, general migration. We did not see a calf today. We counted a single and, finally, another pair of Gray whales.
April 8: [2whales incl. 1 calf, 8 hours] The observation quality was hazy and not as good as yesterday, but it was certainly good enough. Our single sighting of Gray whales was a pair, first sighted by the Condor Express. When the boat and whales approached Campus Point from the east, we saw the big whale blow and what we thought might be a calf alongside. The Condor then "lost" the whales in a long (very long for a cow/calf pair) down time.
We got a couple of better looks at the whales and re-directed the Condor. It was a nice, cooperative effort between our team on shore and theirs on the boat. They were definitely a cow/calf pair, our sixth pair of the season. Alas, no more whales on this day.
April 7: [6 whales incl. 2 calves, 8 hours] Young, frisky whales, breaching and disappearing being young, maybe a bit anxious, but not being calves.
April 6: [6 whales, incl. 2 calves, 8 hours] Our second calf of the day was Photogenic and the first was Bashful.
We are trying to determine if it is feasible to take photo-identification images from Counter Point. In this case we got images of both mom and her calf. But, we will not always be so lucky. It helps if the whales pose in good light in calm sea conditions close enough to us and the guy with the camera points it in the right direction.
The second pair passed by about 2 in the afternoon. Our other pairs, including one cow/calf pair came upon us at the same time just after opening the Count: one outside, mother and calf inside.
April 5: [10 whales, incl. 2 calves, 3:05 hours] It was windy at the start so we were not surprised that we had a short day, but we were surprised to see blows, to the west as we were setting up. It was a pair. We never saw the second whale, but the blows were similar in size. It appeared to be a pair of mature whales blowing west on their way north.
We hardly got comfortable and turned around when we started to see more blows in the very strong glare and choppy ocean to the east of us. It did take a while to figure out what was occurring. In the lead were two pairs — cow/calf pairs — that played at the edge of the kelp right in front of us. Both calves stuck their heads up several times. We saw a bubble blast, rolling, and mixed directions of (non) travel. They weren't going anywhere until another pair showed up. One mom literally pushed her calf.
The swell and white-capped chop was making it hard for us to see what else might be going on. Unfortunately, we were never able to determine if the trailing pair was also a cow/calf pair. Maybe. And through all this action, further out an observer saw yet another pair of Gray whales. We do not think these were cow/calf either, but we did not see them very much. In all: ten whales.
April 4: [3 whales, 6:40 hours] It was not the easiest day for us. Of course, we are excited to be in the calf-migration phase, and we thought maybe we had our second this morning. A small whale showed up east of the Point. It looked like it could have been a calf on our first look. A spyhop made us more excited, but we could not find a mom. It was a single whale, hesitatingly working its way west.
A distant, much bigger single almost got by us three hours later, but we grabbed it and identified it with our wonderful scope (thank you, Tony) before it got too far west. Our last whale was also a single, relatively close but it got lost in the choppy, wind-blown waves and impenetrable glare.
April 3: [4 whales, incl 1 calf, 8 hours] On a day when we put in a full day and counted four northbound Gray whales, we celebrated our first calf of Gray Whales Count 2012!!! Moments after 3:00 p.m., the pair arrived right in front of us in the kelp and just outside the surf. What a pleasant surprise. We were still scanning the horizon for distant, mature whales like the pair we saw in the morning.
The calf route is around Campus Point, and we thought we had it covered … not entirely, it turns out. The image was the best we could manage. It is certainly not suitable for photo identification, but it does document the moment. We are on the board and counting!
April 2: [8 whales, 8 hours] No calves yet. We have it on the best authority that "they will come." We just get anxious, along with just about every visitor to Counter Point.
Yesterday was beautiful with impossible wind. Today was beautiful without the wind. We enjoyed good observation quality almost all day. That didn't help us track out first Gray whale sightings. The first was a young whale that showed up just about on top of Counter Point. We could have lobbed a football to it. Even so, it was Elusive (capital E intended). We glimpsed the whale twice more. On the last sighting, the whale was inside the buoys, along Sands heading toward Ellwood. This is a calf route, with no mom in attendance. Maybe it was a tentative yearling.
Not long after, we spotted a pair to the east, further offshore, well within our range. We struggled with some long downtimes and managed to track it to due south of us. We did not see the pair again. The conditions were optimal, but we could not find the whales as they moved toward the oil platform. More whales lost to the Goleta Triangle.
Close to noon, we saw blows pretty far out, close to the edge of our range. They were, indeed, pretty: four active, robust Eschrichtius robustus, rolling about socializing, and, later, breaching three times. They fluked and blew and spent some good time on the surface as they slowly moved west. We might have been able to track them in less than ideal conditions. We are glad, however, that we could see them so well for such a long time.
Our final whale appeared where we lost the morning pair, straight out, due south. This whale was not disappearing.
April 1: [0 whales, 0 hours] Breathtaking may be a weird way to describe a windy day. It was beautiful and clear, but the wind made it impossible to see blows or whales on this day so we just shut down and went home. (Packing up, we did see Bottlenose dolphins having a blast in the surf.)
March 31: [4 whales, 6:54 hours] We did not expect to do much counting today, yet we got in most of the day before rain. We even enjoyed some sunshine at mid-day. Most of the time, however, the setting was various shades of gray.
A Gray whale threesome (single leading a pair) came through just after 9 AM. They moved right along with regular blows and no fluking. We did not detect any rolling either. These whales were serious about traveling.
Through the morning, Common dolphins were scattered to the south, outside, while Bottlenose dolphins — sometimes one at a time — loped back and forth through the surf and kelp.
At 3:15, a single Gray whale come around Campus Point and continued close to Counter Point with four minute downtimes and regular fluking after the second surfacing.
Then came the rain, in foggy sprinkles at first, then plain old rain.
March 30: [10 whales, 6:08 hours] Fog. And, the fog never really left. We had mostly filtered views with blurred lines and bright sky over a reflecting sea. We are truly grateful for the ten northbound Gray whales that rolled, blew, and fluked past Counter Point. There was some speculation from more than one Counter that we had a Sea otter in the mix, but it was not confirmed. Here's hoping we can confirm that another day.
March 29: [7 whales, 8 hours] It was difficult to see in the morning. The observation quality was a factor, but a bigger problem was there were no whales to see. We gave it a good effort and the Condor Express swept the area. Nada. In the words of the captain, "didn't see a gull." While the whale-watching boat took off further south to attempt to watch something, five Bottlenose dolphins surfed by us. Two calves, one quite small, were in the group.
We had hoped to find a Gray whale calf today, on the anniversary of our first calf last year. Nope. Maybe tomorrow.
We did, eventually find whales (and so did the whale-watching boat). A pair of Gray whales headed straight through our area. They were easy to track. Twenty minutes after we let go of the first pair, a second pair, intertwined on the surface, appeared inside Campus Point. (Our visibility was still not so good.) These whales stayed on the surface — or just under — rolling along as far as we could track them, which was a lot of rolling. The peculiar thing was that a small group of Pacific white-sided dolphins was in the mix, the entire way. We have no idea what the marine-mammal mix was up to.
Between 2:00 and 3:00 we found three more Gray whales traveling north: first a single, then a pair. This pair was hard to track, even though we spotted them before they got to Campus Point with a blow and a fluke. As they moved across our nearshore, they, sometimes, barely surfaced with light blows. As they moved past us, they returned to the regular blow and fluke mode.
Someone remarked how different all these Gray whales were…
March 28: [9 whales, 8 hours] Today we experienced whether-or-not weather. Everything was in motion, continually changing. Mostly we had poor observation quality, but sometimes we enjoyed windows that opened to clear vistas.
Our first animal sighting was a large group of Pacific white-sided dolphins that were difficult to see even though there were at least forty splashing east, not too far offshore. Then, through one of these magical windows, we saw many blows at the horizon in the southeast. These whales eventually angled in and passed well inside Platform Holly. They were so far away, we tracked them for two hours and twenty minutes until they passed the platform. Those Gray whales were thoroughly documented on this leg of their journey through the nearshore of the Santa Barbara Channel.
While those whales were passing, we caught two, younger whales approaching much closer to Counter Point.
Just after 1:00, another young Gray whale came around Campus Point, where the first blows were sighted. We were hopeful this might be our first cow/calf pair, but there was nothing other than the initial track to make us think it might be.
Outside again, we saw three, big, simultaneous blows and a burst of bodies: three more Gray whales heading north, in enthusiastic fashion.
Even in this bad weather, we had gathered a good count for the day. Unfortunately, just after three, it got worse: fog, zero visibility. We waited until 4:00 and then packed up for home.
March 27: [18 whales, 8 hours] Our first whale appeared inside Campus Point and outside the kelp. As it got closer, it breached, twice!! Then as it moved west, the whale entered a cul de sac of kelp, rearranged by Sunday's storm. Undaunted, the west-traveling whale reversed course, and then circled around the kelp heading west again. Very interesting maneuvering. Our second group was actually three groups that were probably, as far as the whales were concerned, a single group of nine whales: three trios spread over a quarter mile. The conga line produced a lot of blows and attendant calls from Counter Point. The observation team sorted it all out beautifully on this beautiful day.
In the early afternoon, we tracked a pair of Gray whales that looked a lot like one pair blowing and fluking, but they did some strange things: changing rhythm, sometimes not fluking, and speeding up and slowing down. When they passed in front of Platform Holly, we solved the puzzle: two pairs. Great work observers.
Our last whales, at least one of them, also breached very close to the morning breach spot. Everyone on the Point cheered. Even in the excitement, three observers noted a blow way outside — three miles out — a new sighting. Unfortunately, we never saw that whale again and it could not be counted.
March 26: [15 whales, 8 hours] We started with a sight we do not want to see: a floating Gray whale. Just off the Point, between two and three hundred meters out, a Counter saw something strange. It took us a little bit to figure it out because a large Sea lion was also curious, investigating the dead, young whale. We saw a bit of the head, then the whale was turned by the surf onto its side, and lastly, for us, the "hump" near the knuckles on its back. It was there for about an hour and a half, and then we could not find it. We contacted the appropriate individuals and a team from the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center showed up. One member thought he saw the whale in the kelp area but not again after that. This may have been a yearling struggling to find food in an attempt to continue on the migration back to the abundant waters off Alaska. Perhaps the whale will strand on the beach so a necropsy can be performed and we will know more.
[We later heard the whale described differently from what we perceived. We believe it was a small, young whale, maybe no more than a yearling. We saw only little bits of the whale, but it was relatively close. Unfortunately, we did not see enough to express whether or not there was entanglement scaring or any other wound. [These comments may be unnecessary because a better determination can be made if the whale makes it to the sand. In case it does not, I felt these comments were important to clarify what we saw.]
Fortunately, living whales brought us out of our funk. We saw blows quite far away in the southwest: a foursome playing northbound against a beautiful backdrop of Santa Cruz Island. As we tracked their progress, a pair showed up much closer to us. We were back at it, but in each lull we thought of the whale and what was likely a hard death. The reality of this extraordinarily long migration hit all of us.
After 2:30 we got what turned into a constant rush of whales, distant and close, in groups of one, three, two, two, and just before 5:00, another single for a day's count of 15. It was a nice way to end the very full day.
March 25: [2 whales, 45 minutes] A spring storm swirled in from the east and rained on our parade and blew away our chance to count more whales today. We did manage a pair that fluked their way across the very bumpy ocean in front of Counter Point. We need the rain, and we will be back in the morning.
March 24: [29 whales, 8 hours] Observation quality at the start was poor. It was dark because of cloud cover, which also created low contrast that makes it hard to see a blow of a whale. Turns out the only effect of the poor observation quality was that we had to wait for the whales to get closer to Counter Point. Just before 10:00 we saw blows from a trio of mature Gray whales heading northbound. From there it was non-stop whales. And, the quality continued to get better so we were able to see whales way to the east and track them for hours as they made their way west through the Santa Barbara Channel.
We had 11 Gray whale sightings with two groups of 4, four groups of 3, four groups of 2, with one single that may have been our only juvenile whale. We saw a lot of big flukes in the air. And whales in the air: breaches!
March 23: [7 whales, 8 hours] We are happy to get in any full day. Even though the observation quality was not very good, it was adequate to watch the young 'uns with their erratic creating routines and singular attitudes. One pair and five lone Gray whales appeared and disappeared on their way north.
March 22: [39 whales, 7:06 hours] From the parking area, we knew that we were not going to be able to see anything. As if we needed the audio confirmation, the fog horn was sounding from Platform Holly. Nonetheless, we loaded the equipment for the day and headed to the Point. Yep, fog.
Then a strange thing happened, the sun started to shine through and the fog dissipated about the time we were set up and ready to count. And, like good theater, as the curtain rose, the magic began: blows … lots of blows … lots of whales … lots of groups of lots of whales. We counted twenty whales in five groups, corralled in what was really a super group, a community of whales. We have never seen this close arrangement of so many whales in our eight surveys. Pretty magical.
March 21: [6 whales, 8:03 hours] A most confounding day … scratch that … The most confounding day! We anticipated a big day and were prepared. All seemed to be unfolding rightly as we saw a blow in the east a minute before nine. While entering the pair of northbound Gray whales, we saw dolphins, lots of dolphins, Common dolphins. They were spread out all over the sea in front of us. As we tracked the whales dolphins were always there. When the Grays were due south of us, they started snorkeling, with very gentle surfacings. Still, they had dolphins around them. And, even with the dolphins, we lost track of the whales.
The Gray whales did not come...until just before 2:00. We caught blows pretty far outside in the southwest. We were able to identify the Gray whale pair. Now we had four whales.
And, just after 2:00, a Gray whale pair surfaced in front of Counter Point. Here we go … No more whales for the rest of the day until just before closing. We spied a pair of blows too far out to be identified. We went home with six Gray whales on the day. Goes to show you never can tell.
March 20: [23 whales, 8 hours] There were Gray whales all over our area, just about all through the day. We saw them way offshore and very close to shore. There were big ones and little ones, in groups and singles. Twenty-three were northbound and one was southbound, yes, southbound.
March 19: [25 whales, 8 hours] The big thing for us, after two windswept days of no counting is our full day on the Point. And, we think twenty-five whales is pretty big, too. Yes, we wonder how many whales made it through the gale and past Counter Point while we were not on effort over the weekend … We wonder about a lot of things.
Twenty-five is a lot of whales for a day, but it is interesting that 21 were sighted by noon. Was this just a pulse of whales like we have talked about before? Maybe. But, it might have been something else. All the whales today were sighted at least two miles offshore, some quite a bit more. In the afternoon, a wind line developed to the south, maybe two and a half miles offshore.
Just after 1:00, we sighted a group of four northbound Gray whales, our last identified sighting of the day. Just before closing, we somehow saw blows from two whales traveling west. We could not track them well, and we never saw the bodies hidden in the chop in the wind. Did a lot more whales pass in that wind line? If they were there, could we have identified them in different (better) conditions? We wonder.
March 18: [0 whales, 0 hours] The gale continued and we were unable to Count.
March 17: [0 whales, 0 hours] Wind and some rain from a winter storm knocked us off the Point. This is our first day of zero minutes, and it looks like Sunday will be another.
March 16: [6 whales, 7:15 hours] Ugly out there this morning. Observers — present company included — always think they can see more than they can. Well, it must not have been very good because we didn't think we could see too well. And, we did not see anything until the afternoon when it got better. Then, of course, it got worse. The fog closed us down for forty-five minutes. Through it all we did a good job adding six northbound Gray whales to the Count. We were most anxious to get in what we could because the forecast is for a storm this weekend. We do know that a lot of whales are going to be traveling by Counter Point pretty soon. We hope they wait for days we can Count them. Lags were back in force at the end of the day. They were "chasing" two larger Gray whales while Bottlenose dolphins were "pushing" a smaller single whale. Strange sight.
A pair of Harbor seals were resting in the kelp this morning. It was nice that we could see them.
March 15: [11 whales, 8:00 hours] At Counter Point, it was the Idle of March, at least in the morning. Our only animal sightings were a single Gray whale at 9:30 and a Harbor seal just before ten. We did not have very good observation quality, but that was not the problem.
Break though: at 12:30 we sighted a trio of Gray whales that we tracked for forty-five minutes and watched them travel outside the oil platform as they left our area. At two some Bottlenose dolphins cross the Point from west to east, and shortly afterward we sighted a pair of Gray whales way offshore. We saw the flukes through a sunlit haze on three dives as this group passed way outside Platform Holly.
A little after three we saw a blow quite a bit offshore and way to the east. We were hoping that if they were Gray whales they would come in a bit on their way north. We tracked the group of five mating whales right up to 5 PM when the passed just the other side of the platform. It was quite difficult determining how many whales there were because they were quite far offshore and were continually rolling and "sharking" (whale on its side with a fin and one half of the flukes in the air: resembling a shark). As they approached the platform they separated a bit with a trio ahead and a pair behind. Thank you whales.
March 14: [16 whales, 6:5 hours] The sky was gray; the sea was gray; the whales were gray; even the blows were gray. Let's just say that observation quality was not what we could have hoped for.
Even with that condition, and an even worse situation — fog that closed us for an hour and ten minutes — we managed to add sixteen northbound Gray whales to our Count.
The remarkable thing was that as bad as it was, we managed to sight them quite a ways away, and we continued to track the whales for an hour and a half to two hours. These were some slow traveling' whales.
We also saw Bottlenose dolphins and a Harbor seal.
March 13: [21 whales, 8:00 hours] Two of the questions we get asked most are: How close do they come? When is the best time to come out here to see them?
A week ago when we saw eleven whales just past the first hour. At 10:15 today our only Gray whale of the first two hours passed close to us and we almost missed it. The young whale did not blow and surfaced once and was down. We tracked it — with difficulty — for two more positions and were treated to a little fluke on its way past the mourning buoys west of us. From 3:00 p.m. to closing we sighted 13 whales. All were first sighted a long distance from Counter Point. As they journeyed northbound, they stayed at least 2.5 miles offshore.
We see whales at all times of day when we are counting. And, during the general migration, we see whales at just about every distance from shore: just outside the surf to as far away as three or sometimes four miles.
March 12: [17 whales, 8:00 hours] It was a darkk with very little contrast. Fortunately, the ocean surface was flat-calm. We thought the whales were not blowing, but it was probably that we could not see the blows for the most part. It was all the more difficult that whales were having some sort of contest to see who could hold their breath the longest. All the whales had downtimes of ten minutes or more. The day progressed and the visibility got better, while the long downtimes continued. All and all, it was very good: seventeen whales and a full day counting.
March 11: [20 whales, 8:03 hours] Our first pair jolted us awake after having lost an hour sometime during the night. The pair had already gone past us but a very good observer with excellent vision spotted the blows. After another pair crossed in front of us, we had a sighting of yet another pair, that turned into a trio by a scampering Gray whale we had entered as a single. The trio was closely followed by another pair. All of these whales were the ultimate slow travelers, who rolled and rolled their way west. Lags were again part of our day. It is becoming a regular thing and that is OK with us. The whales just kept on coming, in goups of 3-2-1-4 and a single just before closing.
March 10: [20 whales, 8 hours] Today, between 8:52 to 10:07 we counted ten whales with another whale counted 20 minutes later. The rest of the day was sightings followed by not much and then another sighting. We think it may not be all a coincidence that the whales bunch up. Why not travel together? Whale vocalizations can be heard underwater for many miles. And, we know from Scripps' recordings from off Counter Point that these migrating Gray whales are quite chatty. Groups of whales two, five, ten or more miles apart can be in touch.
March 9: [5 whales, 8 hours] Our whales were all northbound Gray whales. Between 11:00 a.m. and noon we counted two young singles traveling alone. Both seemed in tune with the sSummertime day. They softly broke the surface, and sort of glided beneath, rather than diving. The 1:00 p.m. whales were big and joyous and stepping' out across Counter Point. One breached four times before it passed in front of the oil platform. No boats anywhere near, just a small, amazed crowd on the Point.
March 8: [8 whales, 8 hours] After yesterday's 27 northbound Gray whales,
one would expect a lot of whales today. Not really. We had six sightings, four of them singles plus two pairs at the end of the day. At the shift change at 3:00, we had two whales on the board. After 3:00 we found two, well-separated singles. At 4:15 we sighted a pair that we tracked to closing. Along the way we found our final pair, whales seven and eight.
The first whale was difficult to figure out. Was it a mating pair of whales, or was it single trying to feed? It was way too little to be a mating pair, and it's strange behaviors might have indicated a calf, but there was no big whale, no mom. We watched the head pop up, lots of rolling, fragile blows, and surfacings barely breaking the zero-Beaufort, glassy surface. We saw the pec-fins many times and many sideways flukes. It was almost not going anywhere, almost two miles offshore. We watched for almost 50 minutes when it disappeared from sight way before it should have. Our conclusion was a single, young whale, perhaps trying to feed. It was kind of scary. Our second whale was another young single.
March 7: [27 whales, 8 hours] It was not wind-swept waves rolling through the Channel today, it was whales. Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'. Our count of northbound Gray whales was 27. We had pretty wonderful observation quality for most of the day. we enjoyed all four islands as a backdrop to the migrating whales. We had nine groups of Gray whales: 4-3-2-2-4-3-1-2-4-2. We were busy, and all supervisors and observers, early morning, mid-day, afternoon, and late did a terrific job. Many are new this year and had not faced the kind of direction and response needed to make this work. Well done. We are anxious to get out to the Point tomorrow to see how the rush of whales will continue.
March 6: [1 whale, .52 hours] With a forecast of the dire trifecta: fog, rain, and wind, we were cheered by mostly blue sky at Counter Point. No Fog. No rain. There was some wind, and looking two miles offshore we could see the whitecaps rolling along. It was just a matter of time. It was a race to see which was going to arrive at Counter Point first: the whale or the wind. The whale won by about three minutes and celebrated with a nice blow right in front of us. The wind countered with a much bigger blow: 40 knots of wind that closed us down for the day.
March 5: [9 whales, 8.07 hours] For seven hours and five minutes our Count for the day stood at 2. Just before 11:00 a.m. a single juvenile, likely making its second trip to Alaskan waters stuck its head up right off our Point as if asking for directions. We enthusiastically shouted "Go west young whale!" Perhaps we were too loud because after another brief surfacing, the whale disappeared (heading west). Forty minutes later another young Gray whales passed a bit more offshore. After that our day was filled with lots and lots of Common dolphins.
At 4:06 p.m. a very diligent Counter spotted a blow well offshore in the darkened haze. More blows followed. It was a group of four hard charging', big blown' Gray whales migrating north at a pretty good pace. As we so ofter see, another group — this a group of three — was following fifty minutes behind on the same water trail two miles offshore. A very nice way to end our day!
March 4: [5 whales, 8 hours] Just about however one can think about it, it was hot in the Santa Barbara Channel today.
As we tried to keep track of a pair of distant northbound Gray whales, we got a call from the Condor Express that they had found Killer whales traveling east. We could see the boat, but not the Orcas. They were at least seven miles offshore of us. We hoped that they might continue east and bend north a few miles. At that time, the sea was flat and we could see a very long ways.
Some believe that whenever Orcas are here all other cetaceans disappear. Not so. We can't blame the black & whites. We managed good sighting even though the heat and haze produced optical problems like mirages on water, bridges across towering oil platforms and horizons of indefinite mush.
A pair of Gray whales we saw at 12:40 came close to Campus Point and attracted a train of stand-up-paddlers and kayakers in addition to the Condor Express, which stopped by for a sampling of Gray whales before heading south beyond the horizon for another helping of Killer whales. (Must have been some very excited whale watchers.)
Alas, the Orcas did not bend north. Maybe they will be around another day for us to catch a glimpse.
Late in the day, we tracked a lone juvenile Gray whale into the sunset.
March 3: [7 whales, 8.04 hours] The weekends are fun at the Point. Lots of people, including multi-generational groups, stroll along and stop to inquire about what we are up to. It is always an interesting interchange and today was no exception. Yes, it helps to have seven whales coming by.
March 2: [14 whales, 7.56 hours] Apparently, right now, the weather—WIND—is affecting our Count of northbound Gray whales. On Feb. 29, we put in a full day, enduring the building wind, and we identified 15 whales. Yesterday, the wind blasted us from the Point and were unable to Count. No whales. Today, there was no wind and mostly excellent- to-good observation quality and we sighted 14 northbound Gray whales.
We tracked our first whales, a pair, for five minutes shy of two hours. These whales were traveling very slowly, very slowly. That they were traveling at all — mindful of migrating — is pretty amazing as they were rolling all over each other the entire time. People say the Gray whales go to the lagoons to mate and give birth. It is more correct to say that they migrate to mate and hope to give birth in the lagoon. This is one of the longest migrations in the world.
The pair "traveled" less than a mile off our Point. The rest of the groups were much further offshore. One group of three almost snuck by, but they couldn't contain their give-away blows in the afternoon sun. It was easy to see them and the flat seas made identification possible.
Just before closing a pair approached from the east. We they reached Campus Point, two miles east of Counter Point, we saw the bodies and added them to our Count.
March 1: [0 whales, 44 minutes] March arrived like a wild thing on the backs of many white horses. We closed the Count only minutes after less than an hour.
February 29: [15 whales, 8 hours] We counted our first northbound Gray whales in a group of four about 2.5 miles offshore. Next, on the same line was a group of three. The wind gradually increased as we waited until almost 3:00 for another group of three. They were "only" about two miles offshore. By 3:30 clouds and wind dominated and we could not positively identify a group of three that was surely Gray whales, so we couldn't enter them into the count of grays.
Our Counters are tough and would not give up the Point. They were rewarded with five more Gray whales in sightings of three and two, adding fifteen to the Count for the day. Nice day.
February 28: [2 whales, 4:45 hours] Past noon it was starting to get pretty breezy when we did find a pair of Gray whales off the Isla Vista kelp. At one point, one was in the kelp. They surfaced and blew about four minutes later, traveling west, and disappeared in the notorious Goleta Triangle. We looked for a long time all over the area, including the kelp in case they had stopped to further explore feeding possibilities. If they did, we did not see them.
February 27: [0 whales, 3:36 hours] A small group of Common dolphins ate their way across our Point just before 10, and came unusually close to us. After 11:00, Common dolphins again started by from right to left. They were really spread out— Some close to the shore, others out as far as the oil platform (2 miles). They kept coming. When they were as far as we could see in the east, dolphins were continuing to arrive from the west. The spread must have been at least six miles long and a mile-and-a-half deep. That's a lot of Common dolphins. We saw no whales before we had to shut down because of wind. Total whales so far: 26.
February 26: [10 whales, 7:59 hours] We saw the north bounders: all ten! They came in groups of 3 and 2 and 1 and 1 and 3. Very nice. We also saw one southbound and one Unidentified Large whale but surely a southbound Gray whale as we tracked it for such a long time. Unfortunately, we never saw the whale's body and so we could not identify it. We also had birds diving all over the place with Bottlenose and Common dolphins corralling fish that tried to escape to the surface in range of the dive-bombing birds. A Counter asked if the whales might try to go around such frenzies and the question was answered by Mother Nature: two Gray whales headed straight through a gang of Commons without a noticeable variance of direction. That was our answer for today. Of course, next time might be different.
February 25: [0 whales, 8 hours] Much better visibility than yesterday, but two fewer whales for a total of none. We did see lots of very hungry dolphins, including Commons and Bottlenose, who danced from feeding frenzies with hundreds, if not thousands of birds scattered across our vantage. It was exhausting watching all the effort!
February 24: [2 whales, 6:47 hours] Fog at both ends of the day limited our counting, but we did manage a pair of big, northbound Gray whales that traveled relatively close to the Point. Earlier as the fog was moving in and out we saw a small group of Bottlenose dolphins and a huge group of about 2,000 Common dolphins. They were really close to shore, which is uncommon. We saw several of them in the buoys to our west.
February 23: [1 whale, 8 hours] Summer weather continued today in the Santa Barbara Channel. Just after ten we saw our whale of the day, a young, northbound Gray whale that never quite developed a surfacing rhythm: sometimes one blow, sometimes two, and once three as it approached the buoys, then turned right and continued closer to shore along the path its mother showed it, perhaps, last year. It was a young whale. Glad to see it.
February 22: [3 whales, 8 hours] A new observer found a single Gray whale traveling northbound while it was just about straight out, due south of Counter Point. Late in the day different new observers noticed "something big" in about the same spot as the first sighting a few hours earlier. Then we all saw the breaches. Three breaches; two northbound Gray whales. In between the whales we waved to the oil barge as it departed with a full hold of oil from Platform Holly for the last time. No one shed a tear.
February 21: [3 whales, 7:57 hours] Counter Point was warm in the morning and cool in the afternoon. In between we tracked a group of three large, northbound Gray whales that were pretty far from shore most of the time. The good part about that is we got to follow the blows and flukes for more than one and a half hours. New Counters got plenty of looks and experience looking for and at Gray whales traveling north. We have yet to see an otter. It would be nice to let them know that there area in the kelp that we call Otterville is now a potentially safer place to hang out, in the midst of a new Marine Protected Area.
And, the western side of Counter Point will be a lot friendlier as well. The oil barge arrived for its last round-up of oil from Platform Holly. From now on the oil will be piped up the Gaviota Coast to a facility. Here is a picture of the barge fading into history.
February 20: [0 whales, 8 hours] We are stretching that rubber band and one day soon a bunch of whales are going to shoot through the Santa Barbara Channel. Not, however, on a holiday. Not on President's Day. Why not hang in Mexico? Our day was mostly warm and windless with lots of Common dolphins carving a path through the still ocean while at least three Harbor seals took their siestas in the kelp.
February 19: [3 whales, 5:18 hours] The wind blew us off at 2:30, but before that we saw three groups of whales. The first group was blowing way to the west of us soon after we started our day. They may have been Gray whales that could have passed Counter Point way before we got there, or it could have been Humpback whales feeding in the Naples Point area. The blows were big and bushy, but we never saw the whales, so we had to enter them as Unidentified Large Whales. Just after noon, a single northbound Gray whale was spotted. In the glare and chop, we could not at first confirm the sighting. After one more brief look, twenty-five minutes later, the sighting was confirmed and entered in The Count. After a shift change and a new pair of interns arrived with some new observers, we were treated to a pair of Gray whales leading the Condor Express northbound, west across our survey site. The new Counters found it more difficult to track whales without the big, white boat indicating the whales' position. They managed, though, and will likely be excellent spotters and leaders on Counter Point.
February 18: [0 whales, 8 hours] It felt like a lazy day of summer in February. It wasn't hot, but in our part of the Channel we had sun between clouds and no wind: very nice. It was different from the past few days in that we could not see the islands even though we had pretty good visibility. And, with all that visibility we saw no whales today.
February 17: [1 whale, 7:5 hours] Counters soaked in the sunshine for another full day on Counter Point. There was some cloud cover over mirror-like seas, which tended to make the morning all one color. We could still spot blows, however, after a passerby told us there was a whale out there. Thank you very much. It was a northbound Gray whale. Then, a half hour after that whale made its way west and out of sight we turned our attention to the east to continue our search for another northbounder. Our passerby must have been continuing to watch west because he saw the blow, which we confirmed was a southbounder. Thank you very much, again. We were sad to see our guy leave.
February 16: [3 whales, 8 hours] We are on the board! No wind and a full day in many more ways than one. Fifteen hundred common dolphins can fill up just about anything. And, right after we watched them splash east past Campus Point, we greeted our first Gray whales. The group of three (large blow, medium-sized blow, and little blow) led the Condor Express across our vantage. Even with the big, white boat, the whales were difficult to track because they had long downtimes and did not spend much time at the surface. No matter to us. We loved 'em.
February 15: [0 whales, 2 hours] Today, we did not sight any animals at all in just over two hours. Asprinkling mist delayed our start. It became sunny with puffy clouds and gorgeous. Even as the wind built, it was a sight to behold. So far, three short days and three days with no whales. It's early, however, and we are hoping tomorrow will be calmer so we can put in a proper day and maybe count a whale or two.
February 14: [0 whales, 3 hours, 29 minutes] This morning, Valentine's Day, we enjoyed some excellent visibility stretching, it seemed, to all four islands: Anacapa, Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel. Of course we can only see the tops of the islands twenty to thirty-five miles from our survey site. The horizon was sharp and the sea was a deep blue as we waited for a puffy white, whale blow.
The ocean in front of us, as well as that Isla Vista kelp garden, is a new Marine Protected Area established by the California Department of Fish & Game. In years past, lobster buoys bobbed in the waters around us and commercial and private fishing vessels meandered along and across the whale trail we are monitoring.
True, we have not put in a lot of time these first two days, and there has been considerable wind. Even so, we have not seen a single fishing boat, commercial or private. Then again, we have not seen any whales either. We are looking forward to seeing plenty of the latter and not very many of the former.
February 13, 2012: Day 1 was a short day (3 hours, 27 minutes) because it was so windy, but with mostly brilliant sunshine. We held on until the blast reached gale strength. No whales today; however, we enjoyed two groups of Bottlenose dolphins.