The “mega pod” of whales spotted out in the distance from the Rancho Palos Verdes cliff was a welcome sight.
The seven whales on Thursday, Jan. 2, at times came close to the shoreline, then frolicked farther out, the sun glistening above their spouts to create colorful rainbows in their spray.
Not only was it simply a beautiful sight – but it could signal that gray whales are making their way back down the coast to mate in warmer waters off Mexico after a slow start to the migration season.
About 27,000 eastern North Pacific gray whales make the long, approximately 12,000-mile trek each year between Alaska and the warm lagoons in Mexico, the longest migration of any mammal on Earth.
“It is our biggest pod so far,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who runs the annual ACS/LA Gray Whale Census & Behavior Project from the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes. “We see them every year in bigger groups, but our counts have been so low this year, it was exciting.”
A low number of gray whale sightings to start the season — 25 from Dec. 1 to the end of 2019, compared to 45 for the month of December the previous year — isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The hope is that they are foraging longer farther north and will be healthier as they make their migration, potentially rebounding after a year in which they were skinny, starving and washing up dead in large numbers along the entire West Coast. The fatalities led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in May, to declare an “Unusual Mortality Event” over concern for the species.
It was the first time the species was given the designation in nearly two decades and allowed for a scientific investigation into the cause of death. Researchers are studying gray whale food sources, looking at photo documentation of where they are feeding and monitoring changes in migration patterns.
As of the latest NOAA tally, reported Nov. 22, gray whale deaths in 2019 along the United States West Coast totaled 122, with 34 off California. Alaska reported 48, Washington, 34 and Oregon, 6. There also were 11 deaths reported in Canada and 81 in Mexico.
Necropsies — animal autopsies — were conducted on some of the whales, with preliminary findings in some cases showing evidence of emaciation, according to the NOAA.
“Last year was such a tough year,” said Schulman-Janiger. “We’re thinking they stayed longer to try and find food. The gray whales had difficulty getting food last season. They came down late, they didn’t have many calves and they headed back early and many were skinny – all of those make sense when looked at in the context of some kind of food issue.”
Even if this year’s migration numbers end up lower, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out there making their way down the coastline. Some years, especially when they are running late for their breeding season, the whales take a shortcut near Point Conception and follow a route behind the Channel Islands.
“We won’t count as many because they are further offshore,” Schulman-Janiger said of her hypothesis, if they don’t show up in larger numbers throughout the season.
There also have been many reports of whales coming down the coast farther north, in the Monterey area, she said. “They are definitely coming,” she said. “Right now, we’re really happy. … I’d rather see them later in good condition, than coming later and skinny.”
And she said there definitely are fewer skinny whales this year.
As January gets underway, the number of sightings has ticked up — by Friday afternoon, Jan. 3, the number had reached 41.
As of Jan. 7, there had been 54 sightings. But with a population of about 25,000, it's still too early to know how they are doing so far this season.
There have been a couple other signs of hope, including a healthy looking calf and mom spotted Dec. 30.
During a recent sighting by Newport Coastal Adventure, a playful and curious gray whale come up next to an inflatable boat, so close that passengers were warned to keep their hands inside the boat.
Such behavior is more common down in the lagoons of Baja, Mexico, where the whales are playful and charters are allowed to interact with them.
Dana Wharf Whale Watching has had sightings of gray whales almost every day since Christmas Eve, according to its log.
Other species, such as false killer whales, fin whales, humpbacks and various dolphin species, have been spotted recently — which means there is food off the coast. The humpbacks, also making their annual migration to tropical waters, have been seen in larger-than-normal numbers off the coast in recent months.
“We’re seeing humpbacks almost every day,” Schulman-Janiger said. “They are definitely feeding, there are huge bait balls and anchovies. They are definitely stopping on their southbound migration to stop and feed on these big anchovy bait balls.”
Want to help?
With the activity in the water increasing and the Gray Whale Census & Behavior Project up and running, Schulman-Janiger said she could use a few more eyes to watch for whales, especially on weekends.
The project, in its 37th season, is a way to track long-term trends for gray whales, as well as other marine mammals that can be seen off the coast.
“We’re looking at the big picture, we’re not just looking at a moment of time,” she said. “We get a more balanced view of what’s going on.”
To join, e-mail Schulman-Janiger at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To report a dead, injured, or stranded marine mammal, contact the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 866-767-6114.