While people make their way from the Pacific Northwest down to the international border and beyond via the Interstates every day, there are other roadways right off our shores, under the ocean’s surface, that act in a similar way going to the same destinations.

These underwater pathways are not paved of course, but are consistently traversed by some of the largest marine mammals in the ocean, gray whales making their way to Baja Mexico. After a summer spent in Alaska eating, the 50-to-60-foot whales head out in October to embark upon the longest migratory route of any mammal, a round trip of 10,000 to 14,000-miles.

It’s right around now, through April, that the route begins to get busy around the Los Angeles area for whale traffic. Traveling at the pace of a brisk walk, it has taken them this long to reach our area.

In the middle of December, American Cetacean Society (ACS) volunteers, stationed at a viewing area atop the Palos Verdes Point, began spotting the occasional gray whale pass by, but by mid-January substantial numbers of southbound whales were passing every day.

Last year the volunteers operated 166 days straight between December and the middle of May 2007, averaging over 12 hours a day. The 74 volunteers contributed 7696.75 effort hours.

By late March the viewers see whales moving both northbound and southbound past our shores, indicating that the chances for us to witness such an amazing animal are very possible.

What is particularly interesting for the residents of seaside communities is that gray whales make this trip mostly along the coastline.

“Since gray whales migrate relatively close to shore, whale watching has become very popular,” says the Marine Mammal Center’s Web site. “Many opportunities are available for viewing gray whales from coastal cliffs and headlands or from whale-watching boats.”

As of February 10th, the American Cetacean Society had spotted 394 whales passing by the point, which is below last year’s totals at this time. But recent statistics are indicating that whales may be leaving later in the year than they used to. There is speculation that circumstances related to global warming might alter their feeding patterns.

“If it gets cold up in the north later, the whales aren’t going to leave until they’re pushed away from their food source,” said Diane Alps, operations manager of the American Cetacean Society national headquarters. “The only ones who may be in a hurry to leave are those mothers who are getting ready to deliver those calves.”

In a report published by the American Cetacean Society Los Angeles Chapter detailing last year’s figures, whale counts this season have been lower so far, but they are mindful that the season is young and they are only one outpost along the way. And many variables are at stake when considering an animal’s migratory route.

“Although most of the estimated 18,000 gray whales migrate past California, we spot only a small proportion,” the report stated. “Observers counted fewer southbound and northbound gray whales [last] season — 476 southbound and 783 northbound gray whales and 529 southbound and 951 northbound whales [the season before].”

For boaters looking to get a peek at a gray whale, there are a couple of known routes where they are always found. They are often traveling on the imaginary line between Point Dume and Point Vicente — farther offshore on their southern route and closer to shore when returning north.

There are even more whales moving west of Catalina Island. Many grays go outside the Channel Islands on their way to Baja.

For boaters who plan on conducting their own whale-watching expedition, marine mammal experts always remind skippers to take heed of the laws regarding the activity and to use common sense and respect when going near. Later in the season many of these whales are mothers traveling with new calves and are protective.

Although in Mexico they are known to actually approach boaters during their calving stint in the friendliest of ways, their disposition may well be very different as they make their way back up north. They were nicknamed “Devil Fish” by hunters years ago due to their combative nature.

For more information about gray whales and whale-watching tours, www.acs-la.org/.

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