Gray whales had a rough go last season as they made their annual migration — skinny, emaciated, even dead whales showing up along the West Coast prompting concern over the health of the species.

With the new season’s first gray whales being spotted in recent weeks off the South Bay, Long Beach and Orange County, whale researchers and enthusiasts are hopeful for a healthier season, one that would indicate the whales found enough food to forage in Alaska as they make their trek to the warm waters of Baja, Mexico.

A young gray whale was spotted last week by Harbor Breeze Cruises, which followed it from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Long Beach. Another was seen off the PV Peninsula earlier in the month, and another around Torrance Beach.

Orange County’s first gray whale sighting was reported Tuesday, Oct. 15, first by a diver near the Newport Pier and then by a Dana Wharf boat captain.

“It was a small one,” said Dana Wharf Whale Watching captain Frank Brennan, of the 25-foot light gray whale. “But it had a lot off barnacles. … It seemed OK, it seemed a little skinny.”

And that’s what whale experts don’t want to see as the season gets underway.

A hope for healthy whales

In May, with dead gray whales dotting the coastline in alarming numbers as they migrated from Mexico to Alaska, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared an Unusual Mortality Event. It was the first time the species was given the designation in nearly two decades and allowed for “a scientific investigation into the cause.”

Researchers studied 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 Sept. 30, gray whale deaths in 2019 along the United States West Coast totaled 121, with 34 off California. Alaska reported 47, Washington, 34, and Oregon, 6.

There also were 10 deaths reported in Canada and 81 in Mexico.

“Historically, when we look at stranding records of gray whales, we’ve seen multiple years of increased strandings around events like this, so we are anticipating higher numbers of gray whale strandings this year,” according to Justin Viezbicke, California Stranding Network Coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Necropsies, animal autopsies, were conducted on some of the whales, with preliminary findings showing evidence of emaciation, according to the NOAA. But “these findings are not consistent across all of the whales examined, so more research is needed,” the NOAA said

“As part of the UME investigation process, NOAA is assembling an independent team of scientists to coordinate with the Working Group on Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events to review the data collected, sample stranded whales, and determine the next steps for the investigation,” according to the most recent update by NOAA.

Gray whale expert Alisa Schulman-Janiger observed last season’s whale migration from the cliffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, as she conducted the Gray Whale Census & Behavior Project from the Point Vicente Interpretive Center. She said she knew from the start that something was amiss, as she watched skinny whales pass by.

As the census gears up to launch again, Dec. 1, Schulman-Janiger said she hopes she and other volunteers see healthier whales come down the coastline.

“I’m hoping we don’t have skinny whales. Last year we had a huge number of whales that were super skinny. The whales were a bit late, which isn’t a concern, but they were skinny. I want them to be in good condition,” she said. “If late, they could just be feeding longer. I’d like to see some healthy calves as well, hopefully they’ll conceive this year and we will have a boom next year. We could have a one-year anomaly, or it could be a multi-year mortality rate.”

Harbor Breeze boat captain Erik Combs said the whale he saw Oct. 12 in the South Bay and Long Beach looked skinny and had killer whale teeth marks on the dorsal knuckle and fluke tips.

“This whale was a survivor,” he noted. “But still very skinny.”

Early season surprise

As they early whales show up, they are generating excitement among ocean-enthusiasts who are getting a close look.

Divers Mike Couffer and Jim McKeeman were caught by surprise near the Newport Beach Pier, Tuesday, Oct. 15. They were conducting an underwater study of the sea bass nursery, when suddenly a gray whale appeared in front of them, Couffer said.

“It wasn’t more than 10 feet away,” he said, noting they were in just 22 feet of water. “It just appeared, then disappeared. It’s pretty impressive when this great big gray wall appears in front of you, followed by this wide tail. It was a juvenile, but still it’s an impressive animal.”

Brennan, of Dana Wharf Whale Watching, said he wasn’t expecting to see a gray whale, but was on alert after Couffer posted on social media about his encounter earlier that morning. Brennan believes it was the same whale spotted later in the afternoon off Dana Point.

It could be the whale never made it all the way to Alaska, and that’s why it’s showing up early.

“That’s just my guess,” he said. “Maybe it didn’t get there the whole way. Maybe it was a late one heading up there. Or maybe he — or she — left early.”

The eastern North Pacific gray whale population that migrates along the Pacific Coast was last estimated at about 27,000 animals.

Gray whales have the longest known migration of any mammal, traveling an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 miles each year between their winter calving lagoons in the warm waters of Mexico and their summer feeding grounds in the cold Arctic seas, according to Dana Wharf.

To report a dead, injured, or stranded marine mammal, contact the West Coast Marine Mammal Stranding Network at 866-767-6114.

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