ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project 2012-2013 Summary:
December 1, 2012 - May 20, 2013
• We finished our season with 1152 northbound grays (including 138 calves), and 771 southbound grays (including 21 calves).
• 1152 gray whales is our highest northbound count in the past 14 seasons, and our 11th highest count in all 30 seasons!
• 771 gray whales is our highest southbound count in the past 15 seasons, and our eighth highest count in all 30 seasons!
May 20: No gray whales. Although we did not see any gray whales today, we did see a Blue Whale, a humpback whale and common and bottlenose dolphins.
May 19: No gray whales.
May 18: No gray whales. Although we saw no gray whales, a fin whale came through our viewing area today — the first one that we have seen since May 5!
May 17: NO gray whales.
May 16: 2 northbound gray whales (our final cow/calf pair).
Our ONLY sighting, a cow/calf pair, showed up just two minutes before we were scheduled to close up for the day! This pair met up with a pod of about six bottlenose dolphin and came very close to shore: we could hear their blows. Then the whales started to mill. The dolphin repeatedly leaped around the heads of the whales and then they rode on the crests of the waves! At times, the calf moved from one side of its mom to the other, likely nursing; it also fluked!
May 15: No gray whales.
May 14: (See photo at right.) 2 northbound gray whales today (a cow/calf pair). We saw this nearshore gray whale cow/calf pair just after 6:30 am; the mom was large and robust, lifting her head a bit each time she released her very tall blow. She and her calf rolled around a bit together and milled. The calf switched sides with its mom a few times—likely nursing.
Highlights of the past two weeks:
SPYHOPPING (some open-mouth); BUBBLE-BLASTING; probable NURSING on multiple days; CALVES playing in kelp and adorning their heads with it and raising their heads with open mouths displaying yellow baleen and rolling with their moms; milling (socializing and resting); bottlenose dolphins interacting with cow/calf pairs. Other species observed included a few sightings of fin whales and humpback whales, common dolphin and bottlenose dolphin nearly daily, and a few sightings of Pacific white-sided dolphin.
May 13: Our gray whale pair passed over a mile offshore, keeping a very low profile. We tracked them for 40 minutes, as they moved out to about two miles offshore. We studied them through spotting scopes, and could confirm them as two gray whales. One whale was large and the other was
smaller, but that was all we could determine; we could not confirm this as a cow/calf pair.
May 12: Dense fog severely hampered our visibility today. The first cow/calf pair came was close to shore; a sea lion was leaping out of the water just beyond their initial sighting. This mom fluked once. Our second pair came just before we were closing down for the day; they were a little further offshore, and continued to move out into the fog.
May 11: Our first gray whale cow/calf pair milled in the kelp. Both mom and calf lifted their heads up high with kelp on their backs, repeating this a few times! While milling, they turned in circles; the mom dragged her flukes as she turned, displaying the sides of her flukes. We watched them for over 50 minutes; then they headed up the coast into the next cove. Another sighting included two cow/calf pairs! They made it tough for us to accurately figure out this composition: first we saw both adults, then both calves and one adult at another time. We did see all four sets of fluke
prints together on the surface of the water, proving that there were (at least) four whales present.
May 10: Our first four sightings were singles. The first two whales came very close together; they both passed within a half mile of shore, and one fluked. Our cow/calf pair came close to shore; the mom fluked frequently and released a BUBBLE-BLAST. The calf changed sides with its mom, PROBABLY NURSING; once it swam over her back! They milled for a while; we watched them for nearly an hour!
May 9: All of our gray whale cow/calf pairs came by at a fast pace. One calf lifted its head high out of the water as it surfaced; it switched sides with its mom twice, LIKELY NURSING. Another calf also switched sides with its mom, staying extremely very close to her and keeping a low
profile. Another pair rolled, exposing a pectoral fin.
May 8: One gray whale cow/calf pair came in to the edge of the kelp on the just to the right of "Whale Rock." Both mom and calf rolled, displaying sides of their flukes. They milled there for a while. The calf rolled off of its mom's back into a SPYHOP, with its mouth open (showing its YELLOW
BALEEN), and with kelp on its back. They swam south a bit, back behind "Whale Rock," nearly out of sight behind the cliff before turning around and heading back on track for their northbound migration. (We joked that mom wanted her calf to remember "Whale Rock" as a landmark.) A trio
passed us about two-thirds of a mile offshore; we watched them for some time before confirming that this group included two adults sandwiching a calf between them. A very low profile single whale came by us.
May 7: Our only gray whale sighting was a speedy cow/calf pair, including a VERY SMALL calf!
May 6: Our cow/calf pair came in close to shore, but then moved on. The single whale passed us about a half mile offshore; it was VERY low profile.
May 5: A single gray whale passed near shore. The gray whale calf switched from the right side of its mom to the left side—possibly NURSING.
May 4: Three sightings of eight gray whales (all cow/calf pairs) passed us within 30 minutes! Two cow/calf pairs milled, then two other cow/calf pairs moved through our area. Another whale also milled; it even turned around
and headed back south for a while. One pair of whales came by at a fast pace. Another gray whale was a heavily barnacled juvenile.
May 3: Our first gray whale was a single. The calf in our first cow/calf pair had a distinctive white spot on its back. The second cow/calf pair moved quickly past us.
May 2: The calf SPYHOPPED in our first sighting. Our second sighting was a low-profile, stealthy whale. Fog moved in and then out, blocking our view for about 30 minutes (perhaps impacting our counts).
May 1: One calf SPYHOPPED, then continued to lift its head high when it surfaced. This pair milled in the kelp; the calf rolled, and its mom fluked. In another trio, the calf also rolled, displaying its pectoral fin. All five sightings came close to shore; we heard blows on four sightings. Gray whales in two sightings fluked. Today's grays came in
pulses (like they often do): we saw no grays for four hours, and then for five hours.
April 30: Near the end of our day, we heard that more gray whales were heading in our direction; we decided to stay longer, and were rewarded with four cow/calf pairs! Three pairs came close together, while the fourth was a short distance behind. The three pairs milled so close to us that we all went down to the fence line for a wonderful close view. Two calves SPYHOPPED at the same time! They continued to SPYHOP, rolled around, and changed from one side of their moms to the other, likely NURSING! We watched them for almost 30 minutes! BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN mingled with these whales, jumping all around them. Kelp draped on the heads and backs of the grays. Another cow/calf pair also spent time with BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN in the kelp; that calf raised its head up high, too.
April 29, 2013: As of April 29, the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project trained volunteer whale spotters (citizen scientists) at Point Vicente have counted 1053 northbound gray whales (including 97 calves), and 771 southbound gray whales (including 21 calves) since December 1. This compares to 886 northbound (including147 calves) and 672 southbound (including 21 calves) by April 29 last season. We have spotted 221 of our 1053 northbound gray whales since April 1.
In the past two weeks, we have sighted 83 of our 97 northbound cow/calf pairs. We are at our HIGHEST northbound cow/calf count (to date) in fifteen seasons! Our peak week of cow/calf pairs (so far) was from April 22-28: 66 cow/calf pairs! Our biggest calf day was on April 24: 15 northbound calves! We rarely see as many as 15 cow/calf pairs in one day; we have exceeded that number in only four of our 30 census seasons, including 20 pairs seen on May 1 last season! Although the peak of the northbound gray whale cow/calf migration phase likely passed our census site at Pt. Vicente this week, we should be seeing more northbound cow/calf pairs over the next two weeks.
Many gray whale cow/calf pairs (and some singles) travel in stealth mode (low profile), and are quite difficult to spot and track. Weather continues to hamper our counts. Over the past two weeks, we had two days of very strong wind (high waves and numerous whitecaps) and one day of fog (virtually no visibility); we certainly missed many cow/calf pairs during these periods.
Highlights of the past two weeks:
BREACHING; SPYHOPPING; BUBBLE-BLASTING; probable NURSING; CALVES playing in kelp and adorning their heads with it and raising their heads with open mouths displaying yellow baleen and rolling with their moms; bottlenose dolphins and Pacific white-sided dolphin interacting with cow/calf pairs; many nearshore whales snorkling (low profile) with some so close that we heard their blows. Our largest pod consisted of eight gray whales (April 24): FOUR COW/CALF PAIRS swimming together and interacting: a VERY rare sight!
Other species observed included fin whales (nearly every day), blue whales, common dolphin and bottlenose dolphin every day, Pacific white-sided dolphin, and Risso's dolphin.
April 29: Our first sighting was a low profile gray whale cow/calf pair. We waited for 7.5 hours before our next sighting: we heard the blows from this cow/calf pair. The final cow/calf pair appeared just before we left for the day; either the cow or calf rolled around, displaying the sides of its flukes.
April 28: Another southbound gray whale came by us today; last year's final southbound whale was also on this date. A pod of two cow/calf pairs turned toward shore and came in to just above the fence line. They milled for a little while; a calf rolled, and one of the cows fluked. In another sighting, the calf raised its head multiple times. We heard blows during two sightings.
April 27: A pod of two cow/calf pairs came into the kelp and rolled. They encountered some BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN. One calf lifted its head up high out of the water. They split up, with one pair moving on to the next cove and the other pair continuing to "play" with the dolphin. The calf in the next cove rode on its mother's pectoral fin. In another sighting, the whales displayed pectoral fins and rolled. Three sightings came at about the same time: a trio and two cow/calf pairs. We heard blows during one sighting.
April 26: A single gray whale produced a BUBBLE BLAST, and then BREACHED FOUR TIMES! It was right in front of us, about 1/3 mile offshore. Our largest pod consisted of eight gray whales: FOUR COW/CALF PAIRS—a VERY rare sight! One calf HEAD SLAPPED a few times! Multiple calves rolled, displaying their pectoral flippers and the sides of their flukes. A pod with two cow/calf pairs loitered in the kelp, accompanied by BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN. Another pair went into the kelp; the calf lifted its head up out of the water. We heard blows on three of the ten sightings (VERY close-to-shore whales)
April 25: A cow/calf pair played and milled in kelp; the calf SPYHOPPED, and its mom did a BUBBLE BLAST! The mom came up with kelp on her back; her calf lifted its head high and then slid backwards into the water. Two sightings joined up; then the calves rolled, swam on their sides, and splashed. Both calves displayed their pectoral fins. They moved in closer to shore; one of the moms fluked. Three single whales also passed by us. Most sightings came close to shore: we heard blows on five of our eleven sightings.
April 24: What a terrific day for cow/calf pairs! One pair passed us about a half mile offshore. This calf poked its head high out of the water, keeping it up while kelp was draped over its rostrum. It swam for a while, wearing the kelp like a hat! Then the kelp fell off, and the mom and calf went back to their low profile mode. Another pair also lingered in the kelp; this calf lifted its head high, opening its mouth and displaying its baleen. The calf in another pair lifted its head like an angled spyhop. Thirteen of the 15 sightings came by very close to shore; we even heard blows on four sightings. Gray whales in five sightings kept low profiles.
April 23: A GREAT day for cow/calf pairs! One pair milled down in front of us; they were so close that we had to look through the fence line to see them! We heard blows from both the cow and her calf. The calf rolled, displaying its pectoral fin. It rode on its mom's back, then rolled backwards off of her. Another cow released a BUBBLE BLAST and then milled; her calf fluked. In addition to the EIGHT COW/CALF PAIRS, we saw two juvenile gray whales; we watched their entire bodies as they swam underwater. All sightings came close to shore. One sighting kept such a low profile that we did not see the cow until they got out toward the R10 buoy and joined up with another cow/calf pair; then blows from all four whales were visible.
April 22: Our six cow/calf pairs were wonderfully active! The first calf raised its flukes above the water, just like its mom (cow/calf pairs rarely fluke). One time when this large calf came up, it slid backwards as if it was sliding off of its mom's back. We heard blows; then the calf changed sides with its mom by sliding over the top of its mom's back. The second cow did a BUBBLE BLAST, and then milled down in front of us, with a sea lion. Then two cow/calf pairs came by —together. They rolled, emitting audible blows; one calf did at least four HEAD SLAPS! One calf rolled on its mom's rostrum. The chins of a mom and calf were visible as they swam on their backs. A calf came up with its mouth open, displaying its YELLOW BALEEN! They milled and rolled around. Then we had two separate cow/calf pairs that joined up after they got past us; one calf came up with kelp on its rostrum, and we heard blows from both the mom and the calf. One mom did at least four BUBBLE BLASTS! They were rolling, displaying pectoral fins and the sides of their flukes. One mom fluked on her long dive. A calf did a SPYHOP! After they moved on to the next cove, we saw another calf SPYHOP, but this time it had kelp on its rostrum. The two calves came up and lifted their heads up high. One calf rolled on its mom's rostrum. We watched these four fantastic gray whales for over an hour!
April 21: Our last gray whale cow/calf pair was very active. The calf raised its head high several times. It crossed on top of its mom to change sides; it looked as if the calf rolled off of its mom's back. When the mom appeared to head off toward the R-10 buoy, the calf turned and headed toward the nearby cove; the mom had to go back and corral her wayward calf! They milled together for a while before heading off. Four of our gray whales had lots of white coloration; we could easily track them under water. One gray whale swam through the kelp. A third whale escorted one of our cow/calf pairs. A pair of slow-moving gray whales milled and did BUBBLE BLASTS.
April 20: Fog kept us from spotting and tracking whales; we'll never know how many whales we missed! Our first three gray whale sightings came within fifteen minutes: two were cow/calf pairs, and the third was a large adult that alerted us with its loud blow. A short time later fog rolled in; we found the next sighting in a small clear area in the middle of the fog. One whale kept a low profile and milled; it lifted its head out of the water. Once we thought that we saw another whale, but then the fog rolled in. We heard blows on two of the seven sightings.
April 19: Our first gray whale calf fluked—a rare sight, while its mom kept a low profile; this pair produced a bubble blast. The second cow/calf pair was just inshore, and just ahead of, a third whale. Gray whales in two of our six sightings kept a low profile.
April 18: A gray whale BREACHED once, within a mile offshore. Our cow/calf pair was the last sighting of the day; we got good looks at the calf, but the mom only showed twice. We tracked one very low profile sighting by fluke prints; one of our volunteer counters snapped a photo proving that this was actually a pair of whales.
April 17: Very strong wind whipped up numerous whitecaps, making it difficult for us to find and track whales. Two of our seven sightings snorkeled; they were especially hard to track under these conditions. A few PACIFIC WHITE-SIDED DOLPHIN accompanied one cow/calf pair. The calf and mom both rolled, showing the sides of flukes and pectoral fin. The calf raised its head high a few times. Dolphin leaped over the head of the cow, darting in and out near the pair; a sea lion also approached them. This pair swam along the edge of the kelp, spent time in the kelp bed, then continued to swim right along its edge again. Another cow/calf pair got past us; we located them just beyond the kelp west of us. They milled and rolled.
April 16: A lot of high winds this afternoon greatly reduced our ability to find and track sightings; we lost one of our northbound whales in the sun line. The southbound gray whale was a juvenile. Our last sighting was the cow/calf pair. They passed us close to shore; the calf switched from its mom's right side to her left side - LIKELY NURSING!
April 15, 2013: As of April 15, the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project trained volunteer whale spotters (citizen scientists) at Point Vicente have counted 832 northbound gray whales (including 14 calves), and 769 southbound gray whales (including 21 calves) since December 1. This compares to 617 (including 32 calves) northbound and 671 southbound (including 21 calves) by April 15 last season.
We have spotted 174 of our 832 northbound gray whales since April 1. The week of March 23-29 did turn out to be our peak week of northbound gray whales; the highlight of that week was March 27: we counted 74 northbound gray whales, our highest daily gray whale count in 15 years! We saw our first northbound calf on March 22; in the past two weeks, we have sighted 11 of our 14 northbound cow/calf pairs. This is our lowest northbound cow/calf count to date in 12 seasons.
We continue to have a lot of FIN WHALES foraging throughout our field of view - and even an occasional blue or humpback whale; we double-check all species ID of distant sightings with spotting scopes. Many of our gray whales were in stealth mode (low profile), and quite difficult to spot and track — particularly on April 10 (and for the following two days) when we again sighted nearshore mammal-eating killer whales!
Weather continues to be a crucial factor when comparing whale counts from year to year. We had at least two days over the past two weeks when extremely windy conditions whipped up high waves and white-caps and blew the whale blows away; this made it extremely difficult to spot, determine travel direction, track, and identify various species of whales. Therefore, we had to exclude many probable gray whales from our total counts.
Highlights of the past two weeks:
BREACHING grays; SPYHOPPING grays, BUBBLE-BLASTING grays and a calf; two gray whale calves that appeared to be NURSING; a calf blew a bubbleblast, a cow and calf surfaced in the kelp with kelp draped over them; milling and rolling grays that might have been courting; bottlenose dolphins interacting with grays; many nearshore gray whales; many gray whale snorkeling (low profile), some so close that we heard their blows.
Other species observed included lots of feeding fin whales (nearly every day), blue whales (five on April 15), a humpback cow/calf pair, a minke whale, common dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, Risso's dolphin, and ORCAS - or Bigg's killer whales (transients, or mammal-eaters) on April 10!
April 15: Our two gray whale pairs came close to shore and did not fluke; the second sighting was low profile.
April 14: Our cow/calf pair milled in the kelp for 15 minutes. We found the sightings when the calf did either a large SPYHOP or a MINI-BREACH. The calf raised its head on several occasions, and once it produced a BUBBLEBLAST. A pod of four gray whales came very close to shore; we heard audible blows. All sightings came within a half mile of shore. Whales in two sightings kept very low profiles.
April 13: Great cow/calf pair! They milled for a short time near Whale Rock. The calf raised its head out of the water, almost like a SPYHOP! Then the calf rolled around. After a while we saw at least three BREACHES; we were not sure whether it was the mom or calf, but we believe it was the calf. We were tracking one sighting, when a sighting popped up in our binoculars, just a little closer to shore. Our whales came in singles or pairs.
April 12: All gray whales kept low profiles; two sightings stayed in extreme stealth mode.
April 11: Our gray whales came by in three sets of pairs, all within one mile of shore and all low profile; perhaps yesterday afternoon's mammal-eating ORCAS were still in our area!
April 10: All four gray whale cow/calf pairs passed close to shore. Our first pair went into the kelp; both mom and calf came up with kelp draped over their backs! The calf rolled once, displaying the side of its flukes. This calf frequently switched from swimming on mom's left to mom's right; this is very typical NURSING BEHAVIOR! The calf in the second cow/calf pair rolled, also showing the side of its flukes. This pair started further offshore, then turned and came in to the edge of the kelp. BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN accompanied two other gray whales. While we were watching one of our cow/calf pairs, we got a call from one of our observers (the naturalist on the whale watch boat Voyager) who told us that they were on ORCAS! However, they were too far offshore for us to see them. About an hour later they called again, telling us that they were leaving to go back to port in Redondo Beach; we still could not see the whales. We heard that they had killed a COMMON DOLPHIN; we were finally able to see the splashes as the ORCAS were celebrating after this kill. We tracked at least seven ORCAS for the next hour and a half; they came in approximately one mile offshore.
April 9: Large swells and numerous white caps provided quite a challenge for spotting and tracking whales. One pair of gray whales came so close to us that we could see them swimming under the water. All three sightings passed just beyond our large nearshore kelp bed.
April 8: Our viewing conditions suffered due to EXTREMELY high sustained winds that whipped up whitecaps everywhere and rapidly dispersed whale blows, making it very difficult for us to spot and track them. We identified gray whales due to their coloration, but as the sun moved around we were unable to see even the bodies of our whales. There were at least eight whales that we could not identify, even though they were only about a mile offshore. A trio of gray whales announced their presence with a BREACH; then they rolled, displaying a pectoral fin.
April 7: A gray whale cow/calf pair entertained us today! First they milled and rolled, displaying the sides of their flukes and pectoral fins near a sea lion. Then both cow and calf raised their heads out of the water! The mom put her head down and raised her tail stock and flukes high above the water in a "headstand"; then she "twirled 360 degrees"! The second cow/calf pair milled near our transect; the calf switched sides with its mom (LIKELY NURSING), as they came across a huge pod of COMMON DOLPHIN swimming in the opposite direction. We heard blows on one of five sightings. Sea lions escorted two sightings.
April 6: A low profile gray whale suddenly BREACHED FIVE times! Another whale B BREACHED TWO times, then went stealth; only fluke prints marked its passage. These breaches occurred within a half mile of shore. We had fun watching the gray whale cow/calf pair; both mom and calf displayed the sides of their flukes, and the calf raised its head high out of the water. Three BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN swam with this cow/calf pair for a while. Whales in three sightings kept a low profile.
April 5: A pod of four gray whales produced TWO BREACHES! A very low profile sighting appeared to be a pair of gray whales; when they reached the cove north of us they started to roll, revealing that this actually was two adult whales and a calf! The CALF SPYHOPPED while the adults continued to roll. One of the adults waved its pectoral fin in the air, and a sea lion mixed in with the group. A pair of gray whales milled for a very long time; they eventually got past our transect, then back-tracked and showed up above Whale Rock, and then FINALLY headed north. All of our sightings came close to shore; one was nearly within the nearshore kelp bed.
April 4: A pair of gray whales BREACHED 15 TIMES! They started breaching at about a mile offshore, and continued to breach until they were almost two miles away. One sighting came so close that we could hear a blow. Another sighting was very low profile.
April 3: Six of our eight gray whale sightings were low profile. We tracked four of our sightings by their prints.
April 2: A large pod of six gray whales came very close to shore; one of these whales rolled around. Another pair of adult whales rolled. A pod of four whales, three adults and one juvenile, milled in front of us. All grays came close to shore; one pair traveled just outside of the kelp line. One very small gray whale was in the kelp bed, not far from the edge of the cliff; it showed itself for a little while and then it disappeared; we could not officially count it because we did not know its direction of travel.
April 1, 2013: As of April 1, the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project trained volunteer whale spotters (citizen scientists) at Point Vicente have counted 658 northbound gray whales (including 3 calves), and 769 southbound gray whales (including 21 calves) since December 1. This compares to 486 (including 4 calves) northbound and 669 southbound (including 21 calves) by April 1 last season. We have spotted 416 of our 658 northbound gray whales since March 18; we saw 260 of the 416 northbound grays between March 23-29! This may turn out to be our peak northbound week). Our most exciting day:
March 27, when we tallied 74 northbound gray whales - our highest daily gray whale count in 15 years! We saw our first northbound calf on March 22; our most recent northbound cow/calf pair came by today. Now that it is April, we should be seeing more and more northbound cow/calf pairs as they leave Baja and head up the coast toward their cold Arctic feeding areas.
We continue to have a lot of FIN WHALES foraging throughout our field of view, and even an occasional blue or humpback whale; we double-check all species ID of distant sightings with spotting scopes. Many of our gray whales were in stealth mode (low profile), and quite difficult to spot and track - particularly on March 21 - when we saw nearshore mammal eating killer whales! Weather continues to be a crucial factor when comparing whale counts from year to year; we had at least four days over the past two weeks when extremely heavy fog or haze sharply reduced our visibility.
Highlights of the past two weeks:
BREACHING grays; SPYHOPPING grays, BUBBLE-BLASTING grays; a gray whale calf that may have been NURSING; milling and rolling grays that might have been courting; common dolphin interacting with grays; many nearshore gray whales, some so close that we heard their blows.
Other species observed included lots of feeding fin whales (nearly every day), blue whales, humpback whales, common dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, a sea otter, and a rare STELLER SEA LION! We also spotted a very large shark about 1/2 mile offshore!
April 1: Two large adult grays came by us—SOUTHBOUND! We watched them for over half an hour, making sure that they kept going (disappeared behind the cliff). They milled in a circle at one point; we were afraid that they were going to turn around and head north, but they turned and continued south. One gray whale BREACHED twice, within a half mile of shore! Our cow/calf pair came close to shore; the calf stayed on the mom's right side, back by her dorsal area, in typical "calf position". The calf showed enough of itself for us to verify that this was definitely a cow/calf pair (and not an adult with a small juvenile). All grays passed us within a mile offshore; most came close to our nearshore kelp bed.
March 31: Our last gray whale BREACHED, about a half mile offshore. One whale was visible underwater. Four of our eight sightings were stealthy, keeping a low profile.
March 30: One member of a pod of four gray whales BREACHED twice – about two-thirds of a mile offshore! Then a whale snorkeled by us; we tracked it by its fluke prints and barely exposed blowholes. Right after we wrote it off, it BREACHED at the edge of our nearshore kelp bed - and then it BREACHED again! This whale milled for about twenty minutes; then it did two SPYHOPS and fluked! Another whale LOBTAILED, LUNGED on its side, and then twisted as it fluked so that it exposed just one fluke. Another sighting interacted with a sea lion. We heard blows on two sightings.
March 29: Although fog hampered our visibility on and off throughout the day, we were still able to count nineteen sightings of thirty-three gray whales! COMMON DOLPHIN joined one pair of grays that began to roll around (possibly courting): they displayed a pectoral fin, and one did a partial SPYHOP! Whales in the next sighting also rolled around; they displayed the sides of their flukes and pectoral fins, and one whale even did a CHIN SLAP! In another sighting, we could see the whale underwater: it did a BUBBLEBLAST, and then RAISED ITS HEAD NEAR A BOAT! One large pod of six whales were a bit spread out. Gray whales in five sightings kept low profiles.
March 28: Today we had our highest second-highest count of northbound grays this season: 49! The highest count was yesterday's 74. Our sightings included one pod of four, three trios, and the rest were pairs and singles. One gray whale BREACHED twice, which is how we found this whale; another whale BREACHED once; both breachers came close to shore. Two singles joined up to travel together as a pair. One sighting milled. We heard blows on two sightings. Whales in seven of our thirty-one sightings fluked. One pair may have been a cow/calf pair; one whale was smaller with a smaller fluke print, but we could not see enough of this whale to confirm whether it was a calf (or a juvenile).
March 27: Today we had our highest count of northbound grays this season: 74, easily breaking yesterday's high count of 41! One gray whale whale BREACHED twice, just beyond the kelp line. A pod of eight whales BREACHED several times; they were about six miles offshore, and we needed to watch them for an hour and a half before we could get a good count on them. Eight of the 30 sightings either milled or rolled. Dolphin swam with four of our sightings; there were pectoral flippers waving in the air, and some whales swimming upside-down! Two gray whales had their fins in the air at the same time, looking a lot like giant thermoregulating sea lions. All but four sightings passed within a half mile of shore, giving us good looks at most of the whales. Several times we would be working multiple sightings simultaneously; some of these whales would split apart and then join up again, creating so much confusion for us that we just had to combine all of these whales into one sighting!
March 26: Today we had our highest count of northbound grays this season: 41! We located one sighting due to a SPLASH - then watched five consecutive BREACHES from a pair of gray whales that were about two miles offshore! A large pod of SIX grays came very close to shore and milled. Another pod of FIVE large gray whales passed us at about a mile and a half offshore. One gray whale interacted with a group of COMMON DOLPHIN: this whale rolled with the dolphin for over 15 minutes! The whale raised its flukes and its pectoral flipper high into the air; it also swam on its back, jutting its chin up in the air. After these dolphin moved east, this whale shifted into a very low profile mode; we tracked it by its fluke prints. Another gray whale rolled, displaying its pectoral flipper. Three sightings milled; four sightings kept very low profiles. We heard blows on two of the 20 sightings.
March 25: Heavy hazy and light fog cut down our visibility. One gray whale trio came in close to shore and milled for a short time; two rolled, displaying the sides of their flukes. The third whale split off from the other two rolling whales; after traveling northward for a while, all three they surfaced together. A pair of whales was just outside of this trio; we struggled to keep the tracks of these sightings separated. Later in the afternoon two other pods appeared in our viewing area close together and hard to track separately: another trio that rolled and moved closer to shore, and another pair. Whales in four of the thirteen sightings kept low profiles that made them hard to tracked. A juvenile lifted its small head high in the air a few times when surfacing.
March 24: Heavy haze limited our offshore visibility. The gray whales came by in two trios, three pairs, and three singles. All gray whale sightings came within one mile of shore. Our cow/calf pair came very close to shore, passing right along our extensive nearshore kelp beds. As they passed the Pt. Vicente cliff and came into view, they stopped to mill by Whale Rock for about 20 minutes - POSSIBLY NURSING! The calf raised its head up out of the water; sea lions approached them quite closely. Later we saw another pair that was probably a cow/calf pair; one had a much smaller blow, but we could not get a good look at their bodies so could not confirm this as a calf. Another whale kept a low profile. Just as we were closing for the day, we spotted a pod of three gray whales - and stayed late to track them through our viewing area.
March 23: The gray whales came by in three trios, five pairs, and the rest singles. All gray whale sightings came within two miles of shore; most passed within one mile. Our southbound whale was a juvenile that traveled right along the kelp bed this afternoon. A few single whales snorkeled, keeping very low profiles.
March 22: Today we saw our FIRST OFFICIAL NORTHBOUND GRAY WHALE COW/CALF PAIR for this season! The gray whales came by in three trios, nine pairs, and the rest singles; most were large adults. All but one sighting passed within 3/4 mile of shore; most sightings passed just outside our kelp line. One pair BREACHED twice and did a huge BUBBLE-BLAST; we could hear their blows. Whales in four sightings milled. Our last sighting was the COW/CALF PAIR! This very small whale's blow was less that 1/4 the size of the blows from the much larger whale; we could see its small head break the surface. We also saw it switch sides with its mom several times during our 36-minute observation period; this behavior is commonly seen when calves are NURSING! We also saw a print trail of what was almost certainly a northbound gray whale very close to shore; however, we never did see that whale, so we could not count it. A helicopter circled our observation post for nearly two hours, often sweeping VERY low over the water and nearshore rocks and divers, and also right above two or three of our nearshore sightings; those whales were not seen again. Gray whales in seven of our 18 sightings fluked. About six miles away, at least two unidentified whales BREACHED twice (including a simultaneous breach) and lunged once; despite using spotting scopes, we were unable to confirm their species ID in the hazy horizon.
March 21: PEAK GRAY WHALE DAY SO FAR - PLUS KILLER WHALES! ALL 29 of our gray whales were REALLY hugging the coast and kelp line; the furthest the grays passed us was just over 1/4 mile away! Gray whales came by in one group of four, nine pairs, and the rest singles; most were large adults. One juvenile raised its head once; another did the same. The largest group rolled around a few times. Gray whales in just six of seventeen sightings fluked - all at the very beginning or very end of our day; many whales were quite stealthy and kept low profiles. At 1:45 pm we spotted the possible cause of the shore-hugging, mostly non-fluking and low profile whales: FIVE TO SIX KILLER WHALES came by, moving southbound within a mile offshore! They breached, and they apparently caught some sort of prey - according to the birds circling overhead. They milled a bit and then headed south. A few of our observers also headed south, tracking the killer whales. Around 3:25 pm the whalewatch boat Christopher got on four to six killer whales a few miles offshore; at same time one or two killer whales were about 1/4 mile offshore (possibly coming from the larger group). The inshore orca split up a group of fleeing COMMON DOLPHIN and caught one or two dolphin, then did a "happy dance" by breaching and leaping around! About four KILLER WHALES continued south, while about two turned around and passed Pt. Vicente again at 5:05 pm - heading northwest. NOTE: I identified the mammal-eating
transient female killer whale CA39A or "Hopper," the 18-year-old mother of two juveniles) from photos taken by Christopher's Captain Carl Mayhugh; Hopper's family is most commonly encountered in Monterey Bay, and has never been photographed south of the Santa Barbara Channel.
March 20: Heavy haze reduced visibility until later afternoon; combined with calm silvery seas, it was tough to follow some sightings because fluke prints were hard to track. Gray whales came by in two trios, five pairs, and the rest as singles; all passed within one-half mile of shore – except for one trio that swam by at one mile offshore. The highlight of our day was our final gray whale, which we spotted just as we put away our gear at 6pm. This VERY small juvenile surfaced in the kelp on its side, turned upside down and lay on its back, then rolled over; a sea lion rolled right with it, and a dolphin came in to check out this action! We saw at least two different nearshore northbound fluke print trails in the afternoon that were most likely caused by very low profile "snorkeling" gray whales; we never did see their bodies to confirm the species ID, so we could not count them in our tallies.
March 19: We had calm silvery seas again today, making it a bit tough to follow some sightings because the fluke prints were hard to track. Just like yesterday, gray whales came by in one trio, six pairs, and the rest as singles; all passed within one half mile of shore. The highlight of our day was our third pair of gray whales: they rolled, displaying their pectoral fins, and released a HUGE BUBBLE BLAST - while PACIFIC WHITE-SIDED DOLPHIN played all around them! Our trio split up into a single and a pair. Another pair milled. Our last gray was a single that showed nicely at first; shortly after it arched and dove, a large boat passed right over its fluke prints - which might have caused it to change its behavior and go into stealth mode - never to be sighted again.
March 18, 2013: As of March 18, the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project trained volunteer whale spotters (citizen scientists) at Point Vicente have counted 242 northbound and 766 southbound gray whales (including 21 calves) since December 1. This compares to 258 northbound and 665 southbound (including 21 calves) by March 18 last season. We have spotted 144 of our 242 northbound gray whales since March 4.
Nearly all of our gray whales are now northbound. We still have a lot of FIN WHALES foraging throughout our field of view; we need to be careful to confirm species ID of distant sightings with spotting scopes. Today (March 18) and March 9 were our largest northbound count date this season: 27 gray whales sighted! Many of our gray whales were in stealth
mode (low profile), and quite difficult to spot and track. Weather continues to be a crucial factor when comparing whale counts from year to year; we had three days just this week where extremely heavy fog obscured all views of the water so that we could only spot whales for three or four
hours of our twelve hour observation period. We almost certainly missed lots of whales over three days this past week due to fog, which reduces our total counts; this is especially frustrating, because the next two weeks is
usually the northbound migration peak for non-cow/calf pairs.
Highlights of the past two weeks:
Many nearshore gray whales, some so close that we heard their blows; juvenile grays that stayed in our viewing area for over nine hours, twodays in a row!; well-marked or deformed grays that we photographed for IDs; BREACHING grays; BUBBLE-BLASTING grays; gray that did a head-up twice - coming up with its mouth open (showing yellow baleen) and kelp hanging out (possibly snacking); milling and rolling grays that might have been courting; bottlenose dolphin seemed to play with a gray whale. Other species observed included lots of feeding fin whales (nearly every day), blue whale, humpback whales, common dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, and Pacific white-sided dolphin.
March 18: What an incredible northbound whale parade! It was tough to follow many sightings today because of the calm seas and gray skies that turned the water silvery with little contrast, and making fluke prints hard to track. Gray whales came by in one trio, six pairs, and the rest as singles; all passed within one half mile of shore. The highlight of our day was our 24th gray whale (in our 17th sighting): we named it "Z-7" because of the shape of the two large white scars on the right side of its head; it also had a small white spot near its knuckles in the middle of its back. We first spotted its head sticking up near our kelp line; then it surfaced with its head held high and kelp dangling out of its partially open mouth, showing a bit of its yellow baleen: it may have been grabbing a snack, pulling off creatures like crabs, shrimp, and sea slugs that live on the kelp. Then it headed slowly along the kelp line; some BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN approached it and played with it: one surfaced nearly on its rostrum! Even its fluking was unique, as it turned onto its left side and rolling its pointed flukes in the air! Our trio produced two BREACHES. Another single gray whale swam with sea lions. Another pair milled. Four singles that came within 45 minutes of each other kept very low profiles and followed almost exactly in each other's fluke prints.
March 17: We loved being able to track our first gray whale, the southbounder, because of its very white head that glowed ghostly green underwater; it passed very close to our kelpline. Then we had four pairs, a trio, and finally a low-profile snorkler that seemed to try to sneak by us close to the kelp at the end of the day. All passed within 1.5 miles of shore.
March 16: MUCH BETTER VISIBILITY TODAY! The gray whales swam by us as four singles, two pairs, and a trio; all passed within one half mile of shore. One of two large adults in one pair blew one big BUBBLE BLAST! Another pair included a juvenile with lots of white on its body and a distinct indentation hehind its blowhole; this is likely a postcranial depression, suggesting that this juvenile is underweight (and will be looking forward to feeding this summer in the Arctic)! Three large adults traveled together. Another whale snorkled. The last two sightings were southbound singles. We didn't see any gray whales over the last four hours; this contrasts with the past two days, when we could only see the water (and whales) during the last three to four hours due to persistent fog.
March 15: We suffered through pea soup fog for the third day running! We couldn't see past the edge of our kelp line from 6am-12pm; then the fog slowly began to pull back, although patchy fog hampered visibility until 4pm. The gray whales swam by us as five singles and one pair. As soon as we were able to see some more ocean at 12:15 pm, we spotted a southbound gray whale within half of a mile of shore. This fast-moving large adult turned in close to shore, fluking straight up like a sperm whale! Another smaller whale milled for a while inside of Whale Rock, before finally heading north. The highlight of our day was seeing (and photographing) a large deformed gray whale that looked as if it had scoliosis — or a well-healed injury — that resembled a huge dent in the middle of its back! The captain of a whalewatch boat had found this northbound whale and he called to tell us about it; he said that its deformity made this whale appear to be two whales! It also had a large white mark below its right knuckles. Our last two gray whales were a pair of large northbound adults.
March 14: Very thick fog wiped out all view of the water, from 6am until 3pm. Then the fog slowly began to lift; patchy fog continued to hamper visibility. We were only able able to see the sea for three hours (out of our 12-hour observation period); eight of our ten whales passed by us
between 5pm-6pm, when we had the best visibility for the day. The gray whales swam by us as four singles and three pairs, including our southbounders; all looked like adults.
March 13: Heavy fog wiped out all view of the water from 6am until 2pm; then fog rolled back in again and totally obscured the ocean by 6pm. We saw all whales over that 4 hour period, whereas we typically have 12 hours of sighting effort; there is a very high probability that we missed passing whales due to not being able to see the sea! While the fog was still thick, we heard a sea lion; we were afraid that was going to be the only thing that we would be able to record! Just as the fog started to clear at 2pm, one of our volunteers spotted a fluke at the edge of the fog. Fortunately, the fog continued to clear, and we were able to confirm that the fluke belonged to a northbound gray whale. We saw a blow, back, and then the fluke; it continued to swim along the edge of the fog, and we never saw it again. A pair of large adult gray whales milled and rolled just in front of us within a half mile of shore; we could hear their blows. Four sightings included large adults; one sighting was low profile.
March 12: Fog really restricted our visibility throughout much of the day. We spotted the blow, back, and flukes of our first gray whale; it was swimming along the edge of the fog, and we never saw it again. The pair of whales kept a very low profiles - in "stealth" mode; we only saw a faint blow, but we were able to track their fluke prints. Because they left behind continual side by side fluke prints, we knew this was a pair (and not a single).
March 11: Heavy low clouds severely reduced our visibility. One gray whale BREACHED twice; a few minutes later it BREACHED again! This whale passed within a half mile offshore; it was part of a pod of two southbound whales
that milled and rolled - displaying the side of their flukes.
March 10: Our first gray whale kept a low profile; we tracked it by following its fluke prints. Next came two northbound pairs and two singles. We finished up with a single southbound gray whale that came extremely close to shore, passing right next to our kelpline, giving us wonderful looks.
March 9: A pair of gray whales produced FIVE BREACHES very close to shore! They milled right around our transect. Our largest pod was a group of four whales just beyond the kelp. They started as two separate pairs that later joined together. Two trios also passed us, including one of our two
southbound sightings. One sighting started out about a half mile offshore and headed straight for Santa Catalina Island; we last saw this whale three miles offshore. One small juvenile went back and forth in front of us for hours, much like yesterday's juvenile. All gray whale sightings passed close to shore, except for two sightings that passed us over a mile offshore.
March 8: Another notable gray whale earned the prize for our longest observation period was "Whitey," a juvenile gray whale with lots of white on its head, a large white spot high on its back on the left side just before its first knuckle, and white underside of its flukes (trimmed in black). We studied this whale from 8:32am-5:55pm - nearly 9.5 HOURS! It apparently spent the day resting, seemingly unable to decide
whether to head south or north! We first located this whale one-third mile out, past our transect. It stayed in that area throughout most of the day; it ranged "southward" from Whale Rock (to our east), and "northward" toward the buoy to our west (two-thirds of a mile away). When it was out toward the buoy, we thought that it had finally decided to move north; however, a short time later it was back down in front of us. Late in the day this whale headed back down the coast to Whale Rock, then turned around and headed back up the coast, about a half mile offshore; we tracked it for
over 30 minutes, and felt confident that it had FINALLY decided to head north!
March 7: Light rain reduced viewing conditions during both the beginning and end of our day. Our first sighting was a pod of three gray whales that BREACHED! — first FOUR TIMES right down in front of us, and a short time later BREACHED TWO MORE TIMES! The local whale watch boat arrived in time to catch the last two breaches. These very slow-moving whales rolled around a lot; one even SPYHOPPED! Another pod of four grays rolled around,
displaying sides of flukes and a pectoral fin. One whale did a head-up: PARTIAL SPYHOP! Because these whales were about three miles offshore, it was difficult to detail this surface activity. Our large southbound whale moved along quite slowly. We watched this whale for more than an hour; it fluked on every deep dive.
March 6: The sea was very smooth and glassy, which made finding and tracking whales difficult at times. We spotted a huge BREACH splash about two miles offshore, and discovered three northbound gray whales! They BREACHED two more times. Three sightings passed us at least a mile and a half offshore. One whale kept a low profile; we had to track this stealthy whale by following its fluke prints.
March 5: A very thick cloud cover made this a very gray day, thus harder to spot and track gray whales. Six of our eight gray whale sightings passed us very close to shore; four came by just beyond the kelp. One pair kept milling over Whale Rock; we watched them for over an hour, even as two
other sightings came through. Our sightings included both juveniles and adults; two of the nearshore sightings were juveniles.
March 5, 2013: As of March 4, the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project trained volunteer whale spotters (citizen scientists) at Point Vicente have counted 98 northbound and 748 southbound gray whales (including 21 calves) since December 1. This compares to 113 northbound and 660 southbound (including 21 calves) by March 4 last season. We have spotted 64 of our 98 northbound gray whales since February 18.
We are now in the official northbound migration phase; we just emerged from our migration turnaround, with gray whales going in both directions. We continued to have more split days with low numbers (the same number of both southbound and northbound gray whales). Our gap between migraton phases continued (our typical pattern: few whales passing in either direction), rather than an overlap (many whales traveling in both directions—like last season). We have seen more northbound than southbound grays daily since since February 27. We will likely see 5-20 more southbound gray whales before the end of this season; Monterey Bay Whale Watch sighted more southbound whales headed our way this week.
Our turnaround occurred between Feb 15-19. This season we experienced a wide gap in migration phases with few whales sighted: the lower the numbers, the less certainty, since good science relies on large sample sizes. Also, with repeated direction flip-flopping, it will be difficult (and somewhat arbitrary) to chose an official crossover date; usually this date occurs between February 9-21. We still have a lot of FIN WHALES foraging throughout our field of view; we need to be careful to confirm species ID of distant sightings with spotting scopes. We have had four days of only northbound grays: February 20, and March 1, March 2, and March 4; March 4 was our largest northbound count date this season: 11 gray whales sighted! Many of our gray whales were in stealth mode (low profile), and quite difficult to spot and track. Weather continues to be a crucial factor when comparing whale counts from year to year; we had more days during which visibility was limited due to high winds, heavy haze, or fog.
Highlights of the past two weeks: Many nearshore gray whales, some so close that we heard their blows; saw BREACHING and LUNGING grays; a circling gray that swam with its mouth open (showing yellow baleen); a gray did a head-up (like a partial SPYHOP), milled, and rolled, coming up with kelp on its back and again with kelp on its head; milling and rolling grays that might have been courting;
common dolphin seeming to play with gray whales that were milling, rolling, or swimming upside-down. Other species observed included feeding fin whales (as many as 14) nearly every day, minke whale, common dolphin, bottlenose dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, and Risso's dolphin.
March 4: NORTHBOUND GRAY WHALE DAY! Eleven northbounders, including an open-mouth gray; we watched six others play! One very cool sighting was a nearshore juvenile gray whale that we tracked primarily by its fluke
prints; when it got down in front of us, this whale started coming up with its MOUTH OPEN! It swam in circles (milled) and surfaced, displaying its short YELLOW BALEEN more than a dozen times over ten minutes! We lost track of it, because more whales showed up within a half mile of shore. We spotted a pair of gray whales, then another pair, and then a third pair! Then they started to mix things up! Some would circle around and join some of the other whales; they would come up at the same time, with blows spread over a quarter of a mile. We ended up combining these six whales into one sighting, because we could not tell them apart! When some of them had traveled nearly two miles away they encountered COMMON DOLPHIN; we saw dolphin all around the whales, but they were too far offshore to determine exactly what was happening. One whale was so close that we could hear its blows. Another gray whale kept such a low profile ("snorkling")that it was almost impossible to track.
March 3: HIGHLIGHT OF OUR DAY: BREACHING GRAYS! Our last gray whale pair provided us with a great treat! First one whale BREACHED seven times about a half mile offshore. A few minutes later one whale BREACHED twice in the sun line, then the other whale BREACHED twice to the left of sun line, and then the whale on the right of the sun line LUNGED!
March 2: NORTHBOUND GRAY WHALE DAY! Three gray whale sightings came very close to shore, while our trio passed two-thirds of a mile offshore. One whale was a juvenile that kept a very low profile. We spotted another whale's lice-covered head underwater. A BOAT PASSED RIGHT OVER THIS WHALE; after that, it went into stealth mode.
March 1: NORTHBOUND GRAY WHALE DAY! Two gray whale sightings came very close to shore, two came about 1/2 mile offshore, and two passed us over two miles offshore. FIN WHALES foraged in our viewing area. Some FIN WHALES were out towards Redondo Canyon; three of them passed within a mile of shore. One FIN WHALE pair was present at the time and location of our last gray whale sighting; the gray whales appeared to swim right past the FIN WHALES.
Feb. 28: We are still in the lull — the gap between the southbound and northbound gray whale migration phases. Our two southbound gray whales came close to shore; we heard them blow when they were right down in front of us. One whale logged on the surface, lifting its head before it moved out of view. Five minutes after we last sighted these southbound whales, we found the northbound whale, just over a half mile offshore.
Feb. 27: Our first pair of northbound gray whales came close to shore, traveling low profile until they got to transect; then one whale fluked. Our third northbound whale came into the kelp several times and was difficult to track. The southbound gray whale was a large adult that swam fairly rapidly and did not fluke.
Feb. 26: We found one juvenile gray whale in the kelp. It did a head-up (like a partial SPYHOP), milled, and rolled - showing the sides of its fluke. It came up with kelp on its back, and then again with kelp on its rostrum. We watched it for about fifteen minutes before we lost it in the sun line. Two sightings came by close together: a pair and one single large adult. These whales kept changing places, as if they were playing leapfrog - causing confusion as we tried to
track them. We heard blows on both sightings, and we saw a bubble blast come up near one of them. Another gray whale came close enough to shore that we could track it underwater; this whale lifted its head high. Our FIN WHALES created a lot of excitement today: two swam into our nearshore kelpbed, and three others rolled around as if they were courting or mating - both behaviors new to us!
Feb. 25: Our southbound whale was low profile, which made it hard to track. One northbound juvenile came in close to shore; we heard a blow and watched this whale underwater. A sea lion jumped around the heads of a pair of northbound
whales; a bit later COMMON DOLPHIN swam all around them. One whale rolled; we saw its pectoral fin. Then that whale rolled over on its back and swam upside down. Unfortunately, this display occurred over a mile offshore; we needed spotting scopes to observe this activity.
Feb. 24: We first spotted our gray whale about two miles offshore; we had a lot of trouble with identifying this whale at first, because we could not clearly see its back and it had a tall blow (more like that of a fin whale). The whale came close enough to shore so that we were able to see the dorsal area, where there were gray whale knuckles (but no fin whale dorsal fin). We watched this gray whale for about an hour.
Feb. 23: The two northbound whales were juveniles. One of the southbound whales was a large adult. We did not find that whale until it got past our transect, likely because it had to swim past a number of FIN WHALES; this species mixture made the gray whale whale difficult to spot.
Feb. 22: One northbound pair of gray whales rolled around, displaying the sides of their flukes. They milled for a while; the setting sun turned their backlit blows pink. They synchronized their fluke-up dives twice: a beautiful sight!
Feb. 21: There was a lot of confusion with out first northbound whale. We thought that both a gray whale and a humpback whale BREACHED FIVE TIMES in the same area - about half of a mile away from us; however, when we looked at photos taken by a visitor we could see that the mostly white pectoral flippers actually belonged to a gray whale— not a humpback whale. About fifteen minutes later we saw another BREACH; a close look in a spotting scope scope confirmed that we were looking at a gray whale. All of our gray whales came within a mile offshore; two sightings passed us just beyond the kelp.
Feb. 20: NORTHBOUND GRAY WHALE DAY! High winds again challenged us as we tried to spot and track whales. Because of these windy conditions (and numerous whitecaps), we were unable to track one pod of four grays. At least 12 FIN WHALES foraged within our study area throughout most of the day.
Feb. 19: Early morning showers and strong afternoon wind made spotting and tracking whales very difficult. Our only gray whale was southbound; we watched it for just one surfacing series: blows, back and a "lazy" fluke.
Feb. 18, 2013: As of February 18, the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project trained volunteer whale spotters (citizen scientists) at Point Vicente have counted 34 northbound and 731 southbound gray whales (including 21 calves) since December 1. This compares to 60 northbound and 646 southbound (including 21 calves) by Feb 18 last season. We have spotted 26 of our 34 northbound gray whales since January 31. We had a near-record December
southbound count (second highest in 29 years; only last season's count exceeded this one). We also had high counts of southbound gray whales in January, making this the 3rd highest southbound count in 30 seasons (by the end of January), and the 7th highest southbound count to date—the highest southbound count in 16 seasons!
Whale counts can be higher than usual for any of the folowing four reasons (sometimes more than one will apply):
*a. The whales are migrating earlier than usual.
*b. More whales are traveling closer to shore.
c. Good weather conditions are allowing us to spot and track more whales.
d. More whales are migrating past a given point.
*a. This season the gray whales appeared to migrate south earlier than usual. We believe that the primary cue that initiates their southbound migration the seasonal change in apparent day length: days are getting shorter, initiating the urge to migrate. However, this season the Bering Sea ice formed earlier than usual; since that ice coverage may have kept them from continuing to reach their preferred arctic feeding grounds, this may have initiated an earlier migration. An earlier migration would definitely help contribute to our higher numbers.
*b. This season's high southbound count continued into January, unlike last season. This not too surprising, when one takes into account that last season we had our highest northbound gray whale calf count ever: 260 cow/calf pairs! Juvenile gray whales prefer the nearshore migration route,
so it makes sense that we would see a bump in our counts if a large proportion of last season's calves survived.
Turnaround Time: We are right in the middle of our migration turnaround, with gray whales going in both directions. We have to be especially vigilant in tracking our
whales, so that we do not get these mixed up as they pass by one another. Also, we have a lot of FIN WHALES foraging in our observation field; we need to be careful to confirm species ID of distant sightings with spotting scopes. We have had several split days (the same number of both southbound and northbound gray whales). February 15 was the first (and only) date that we saw more northbound grays than southbounders (1 south, 4 north). However, on February 16 we had mostly southbound grays (4 south, 2 north). This flip-flopping is to be expected throughout the next week during this turnaround time, as the southbound migration tails off and the northbound migration picks up. This season we are experiencing a gap between migration (our typical pattern— few whales passing in either direction), rather
than the atypical overlap (many whales traveling in both directions, which we experienced last season). Our turnaround (or cross-over period) usually occurs in mid-February, generally between February 9 and February 21. By
next week, we will probably be seeing mostly northbound gray whales. By our next posting (in two weeks), we should be well into the northbound migration.
Weather is a crucial factor when comparing whale counts from year to year; this season we have had many days during which visibility was limited due to high winds, heavy haze, fog, or rain.
Highlights of the past two weeks: Many nearshore gray whales — some so close that we heard their blows; a spyhop and several headlifts; bubbleblasts; milling and rolling grays that might have been courting; sea lions, bottlenose dolphin, and common dolphin seeming to play with the gray whales that were milling, rolling, or swimming upside-down; one whale swam with its head held way above the water twice, mouth open and baleen showing —possibly skim-feeding! Other species observed included fin whales (feeding) nearly every day, common dolphin, bottlenose dolphin and Pacific white-sided dolphin.
Feb. 18: Our two gray whale sightings came within five minutes of each other. We found the southbound pair first. Because we are in the middle of the turnaround (crossover period) and because we are seeing a lot of foraging fin whales throughout the day, we took our time to make sure that these whales were actually gray whales. Their blows were appropriately "heart" shaped, so we were hopeful. As we were watching this pair, we noticed the fluke prints of a whale just outside the kelp! We could not tell from the fluke prints which direction the whale was going. Then we
verified that the southbound whales were gray whales, and that there were two of them. Then came the task of finding the other elusive nearshore whale to verify its direction of travel. Twenty minutes after the original sighting, we spotted the nearshore gray whale right along the kelp line at
the far side of the cove: northbound! We saw it surface a few times, and were eventually able to observe a visible blow.
Feb. 17: Heavy fog and haze throughout the day limited our visibility. Our southbound gray whale passed us about 3pm: it displayed the typical gray whale blow and back, but it did not fluke. It came within a mile of us. Due to poor sighting conditions, we saw just one FIN WHALE; it came within a
mile of shore.
Feb. 16: One southbound whale was nice and showy: the whale swam with its head way above the water on two occasions. One of our volunteers took a picture that verified that its mouth was open and its baleen was showing; it could have been skim feeding (a technique occasionally used by typically bottom-feeding gray whales). Three of the four southbound whales kept a low profile; we tracked them by their prints before actually sighting the whales in two of
those sightings. Our two northbound whales were over five miles offshore; we had to use a spotting scope to confirm that they were gray whales.
Feb. 15: Our first gray whale headed south, passing us early this morning; it almost snuck by us. Another whale raised its head high, then it did a SPYHOP! It was rolling, displaying a pectoral fin. This whale also released a BUBBLE BLAST along the edge of the kelp; it must have gone into the nearby cove, because we lost it. Another whale kept a low profile until it encountered some COMMON DOLPHIN and some sea lions; then the whale rolled, displaying its pectoral fin and the side of its fluke. Unfortunately, it was a mile away, which made it difficult to observe what was happening.
Feb. 14: Socked-in fog shut down our visibility from 1pm to 4pm, making it impossible to spot any whales. Our southbound whale came at 8am; it was close to shore, but some boats and dolphin were in that area and we lost the whale. The northbound whale didn't show up until 5pm; it was also close to shore, so close that we actually heard its blows.
Feb. 13: We were watching a fin whale that was about two miles offshore when we saw a BREACH that was followed by TWO MORE BREACHES. The gray whales were northbound, over two and a half miles offshore. There was a lot of haze and we are not sure we would have found these two large whales if the one whale had not breached. The two gray whales continued to move further offshore as they moved north. There were two adult southbound whales that were fast-moving and just beyond the kelp. Then we had two very
low profile southbound whales.
Feb. 12: Our first whale was spotted by prints just above whale rock. It was clearly headed south. One of our volunteers had to drive down the road a ways to verify that the whale was in fact a gray whale. We saw a pair of very large whales that came in from offshore waters and headed south. Their blows were so large that some people thought that they must have been fin whales. They came within a mile of shore and fluked. One sighting was very stealth, keeping a low profile until it got right in front of us; then it fluked.
Feb. 11: Our first four southbound gray whales came at about the same time. There were two pods of with two whales in each pod. The first pod showed itself nicely; they fluked and came close to shore. The second pod was low
profile, but they were good printers so we were able to track them. Our fifth southbound whale was taking its own sweet time, it kept swimming in circles. It did a BUBBLE BLAST and it lifted its head high. Our five northbound whales came in one pod and we did not find them until after 5pm.
Feb. 10: Today was the first day when we saw as many whales traveling south as those traveling north. Our southbound whales came as three separate sightings. Two sightings were slow-moving; we watched one nearshore
sighting for an hour. Our three northbound whales came as one sighting; they were over two miles offshore.
Feb. 9: One of the whales was sighted by seeing a BIG SPLASH! People then put their binoculars on the spot and were treated to a SECOND BREACH - just beyond the kelp line. The whale rolled, displaying its pectoral fin, before
moving on. Today was a good day for milling: whales milled on four of the seven sightings. There were also two low profile whales.
Feb. 8: Today was very windy, cold and rainy, drastically cutting down on our sighting conditions. Most of our gray whales passed close to shore. It was often too windy to use our sighting scopes; also, the swells were so large that we couldn't see the backs of the whales to positively confirm
Feb. 7: We found a southbound pair of gray whales when one them lifted its head high - nearly like a LUNGE! These two whales rolled and left behing clear fluke prints throughout the entire twenty minute observation period. Another whale kept a low profile as the whalewatch boat Voyager observed it. When the whalewatch boat left, another boat came VERY close to it; the whale fluked, and we never saw it again. Late in the day one of our volunteers spotted a fluke, but we were never able locate that whale; although we think that it may have been a gray whale, we were unable to verify the species ID - so we could not include it in our count.
Feb. 6: A pair of whales was passing in front of us when suddenly one of them BREACHED! Another pair of whales milled in the cove for over three hours; they rolled and rolled, displaying their pectoral fins and the sides of their flukes. While we were watching this pair, a single whale passed us and then another pair passed us. The rolling gray whale pair was still milling in the cove after sunset. Three census observers drove over to the parking lot at Ocean Front and watched the whales came up. We heard the
blows directly below us; one whale swam on its back, and some BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN swam with them!
Feb. 5, 2013: As we start the Journey North season, Director/Coordinator Alisa Schulman-Janiger reminds us that the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project at Pt. Vicente has actually been underway since December 1. The 30th consecutive season of the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project—based at the Pt. Vicente Interpretive Center—again started off with some record-breaking numbers.
- Our trained volunteers have counted more southbound gray whales this season than in any of the previous 16 seasons! We counted 644 southbound grays between December 1 and February 3, compared to 558 last season.
- Like last season, this season's southbound migration appeared to start early; this is most likely due to the early freezing of most Arctic feeding grounds, so gray whales lost access to benthic food (bottom-dwelling flattened shrimp called amphipods); usually shortened daylight periods initiate this migration.
- Another factor contributing to our high southbound counts is almost certainly related to the very high record northbound calf counts last season (260); juveniles are strongly biased to a nearshore migration route, so last season's calves should be bumping up our nearshore counts.
What to Watch For
- We should continue to see low numbers of mostly southbound gray whales until mid-February.
- We will probably have a large gap period in February beween migration phases.
- The gray whale migration off our area usually shifts from southbound to primarily northbound between February 9-February 21: this is called the turnaround period.
Last season our gray whale counts—including calves—rose substantially, despite a huge mid-migration sightings gap. Our southbound migration had also peaked and dropped off early. Our turnaround (cross-over) date was early: February 10. Before that date, our migration was primarily southbound; on February 10 it shifted to primarily northbound.
What will 2013 bring? Stay tuned!
**Extraordinary Megapod Event: JANUARY 20, 2013:
We spotted our record large gray whale pod: at least 23 gray whales in one sighting! Observers did not think that this HUGE group of whales that were three miles offshore could POSSIBLY be gray whales!
Summary of counts Dec. 1, 2012 to February 3, 2013 at the ACS/LA Gray
Whale Census and Behavior Project:
First day of gray whales: December 1
Southbound gray whales: 644; last season we were at 558. Our past 10 seasons have ranged from 216-558 (averaging 392). Our last huge southbound count was 876 (1996-97)
Southbound cow/calf pairs: 20 (same as last season); this has ranged from 19-57 over 10 years (averaging about 28).
Northbound gray whales: 10; we had seen 9 northbound grays last season to date. The 10-year range is 2-18 northbound grays.
First northbound gray whale: January 16.