Like clockwork, right after Christmas, the annual gray whale migration begins.
As many as 27,000 gray whales head south to the lagoons off the Baja Peninsula to mate and give birth. The fascinating display of nature seldom fails to amaze onlookers, triggering the surge in Southern California whale watching day trips every year.
“We are so lucky to be in the Santa Monica Bay, they have to go right by us,” said Caryn Stanton, whale watch coordinator at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro.
This year’s migration is well underway — some 30 whales have been accounted for so far by whale census takers stationed near the Point Vicente Lighthouse in Rancho Palos Verdes — and the public tour boats are either already running or getting ready to launch.
Harbor Breeze offers daily trips co-sponsored by the Aquarium of the Pacific out of Long Beach.
The Cabrillo Aquarium Whalewatch program also is sponsoring tours out of Marina del Rey (on the Matt Walsh at 10 a.m. daily, except Tuesdays) and Long Beach (Spirit Cruises, staring Jan. 18). Tours out of Redondo Beach on the excursion vessel Indian also are planned as part of the Cabrillo program, but dates haven’t been announced.
As of last year, the aquarium’s usual San Pedro whale watch tours were disrupted by waterfront development that forced Spirit Cruises to move to Long Beach. It’s hoped some San Pedro tours can resume in another year or so, Stanton said.
While the migration season, including the trip south and north again, goes until April, the waters off of Southern California are seeing more whales overall in recent years, said Diane Alps, education director for the Cabrillo Aquarium Whale Watch Program.
“And now it’s not just about gray whales anymore,” Alps said. “In the mid-2000s, 2007 or 2008, we started to see humpback whales and fin whales. 2010 and 2011 were big blue whale years, so this took us into a year-round (whale season). It’s happening all up and down the coast.”
Rare killer whales have recently been spotted around the Channel Islands and may wind up coming closer to the mainland shore in time, Alps said.
But it all began with the gray whale migration, which now triggers the annual launch of fleets of catamarans that give passengers a closer look at marine life.
Day trips are just now ramping up and are available from several ports, including Long Beach, Marina Del Rey and Redondo Beach. Trained educators are on board to point out wildlife not often seen.
“People don’t realize how much there is to be seen,” Alps said. “You don’t have to be a diver, you don’t have to get into the water.”
The trips also are affordable for most, Alps said, running from between $20 and $40 and lasting from two to three hours. It began in San Diego but it was the late John Olguin in San Pedro who brought the idea north by arranging to take school children out on fishing boats that weren’t active during the winters.
Since they began more than half a century ago, the whale watch boat trips have evolved and now have a broader focus, Alps said.
A whale watching trip out of Marina del Rey the other day, Alps said, spotted sea turtle. The sights also include sea lions, sea birds, and dolphins.
“This is definitely not just whale watching,” Alps said.
But whales still pack the biggest star power and most of the trips will encounter at least one, she said, although there’s no guarantee of a sighting every time.
More recent regulations also call for the boats to remain 100 yards away and to avoid anything that disrupts or changes a whale’s behavior. That came after some concerns that boats were sometimes getting too close to the animals and “harassing” them.
But sometimes, Alps said, the whales wind up approaching the boats out of curiosity, especially if the vessels are cruising along slowly and quietly.
Among some concerns, Alps said, are an increasing number of beached whales during the last few migrations.
In 2019, the federal government declared an “unusual mortality event” for gray whales, opening up a federal investigation into the strandings, Alps said.
A warm water mass that has been present in recent years could be affecting the food chain, she said, noting that many of the stranded whales were emaciated.
“We’re hoping it’s not going to be a big stranding year,” she said. “But often times they do come, it takes a little while for the ecosystem to strengthen again. We’re all on high alert, waiting and hoping.”
For more information:
Cabrillo Aquarium Whalewatch Program: 310-548-7770; www.cabrillomarineaquarium.org;
Harbor Breeze Whale Watch: 562-567-8909; www.2seewhales.com.