Gray whales have begun to swim past the Southern California coast now as they make one of the longest mammalian migrations known to man. The journey from the feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas to the calving grounds in the Baja California lagoons and back averages 10,000 to 14,000 miles.
"We have been seeing more and more gray whales every day," reported Scott Louie from Harbor Breeze Cruises in Long Beach. "Add in literally thousands of dolphins and an occasional orca sighting, and this is a terrific time to be on a whale watching trip."
The leviathans, which way 30 to 40 tons, feed on crustaceans on the bottom of the ocean by rolling on their sides and scooping up bottom sediment and lots of seawater. They close their mouths and use their tongues to expel the water and sediment through baleen plates, leaving a tasty meal of krill inside. Adult males can reach 46 feet in length; adult females can reach 50 feet.
Originally, gray whales were an endangered species; however, their population has rebounded since they were given full protection by the International Whaling Commission in 1947. The eastern north pacific gray whales now number between 19,000 and 23,000.
Unlike blue whales, gray whales are frequently visible from shore and can be spotted from the cliffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, San Pedro and Laguna Beach.
The cliffs aren't the only place to watch the whales. The Marina del Rey sportfishing fleet and several private boaters have reported seeing several gray whales recently, while Dana Wharf Whale Watching has spotted as many as four gray whales in a single day.
"This is a great time of the year," said Rick Oefinger from Marina del Rey Sportfishing. "Our anglers get a two-for-one deal with whale watching and fishing on the same trip."
The out of King Harbor in Redondo Beach began its whale watching tours on Tuesday. The deepwater canyons just off Redondo attracted copious amounts of blue whales earlier this year, but now the blues are gone and the grays have arrived.
Since 1979, the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project near Point Vicente in Palos Verdes has been using spotters to count the number of gray whales swimming by. The spotters, who are volunteers, detail whale behavior, including breaching, spyhopping and nursing, among others, from Dec. 1 through May 15. The volunteers also observe the effect boats have on the whales and document any harassment issues. So far, spotters have documented nearly 40 southbound gray whales in December.
Fans can also track whales through their computers. The Marine Mammal Institute within Oregon State University has tagged two gray whales, and their tracking data is available online. The whales—named Vavara and Agent—are presently making their way across the Bering Sea but taking very different routes.
Those who plan to go out and see the whales from their own boats should be aware of NOAA’s Marine Mammal Viewing Guidelines and Regulations. Federal law prohibits harassment of these creatures and requires boaters remain at 100 yards from the migrating whales. Do not attempt to touch or swim with these creatures because their behavior can be unpredictable.