The period of the annual gray whale migration has been picked as prime time for the staff at Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium to illustrate the splendors of Santa Monica Bay ocean life to local families. Heal the Bay has planned a “Whale of a Weekend” full of whale-oriented family activities and events to mark the movement of the gargantuan sea mammal common in the Santa Monica Bay this time of year.

“Whale of a Weekend” activities, including whale watching and whale-themed crafts, movies and puppet shows as well as aquarium tours are scheduled from 12:30 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, February 4th and 5th, at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, 1600 Ocean Front Walk (under the Santa Monica Pier Carousel), Santa Monica. Admission is $2 for adults, and free for children under 12 years old.

The events are centered on fun ways to teach visitors about the habits and characteristics of Pacific gray whales (a variety of baleen whale) and the migration pattern of the species.

The gray whales feed in the northern arctic waters in the summer and migrate to the mating and calving lagoons off the coast of Baja California, passing through Southern California coastal waters.

The migration is a 10,000 to 14,000 mile round trip, one of the longest of all mammalian migrations, according to the ACS, and and it takes two to three months each way.

Locally, gray whales can often be spotted from shore with the naked eye, according to Haan-Fawn Chau and Emily Pratt, two main organizers of the “Whale of a Weekend” events at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.

The whales can commonly be seen blowing water out of their spouts as they come up for air. They then stay submerged for up to 15 minutes. They swim from three to six miles per hour.

Characteristics of gray whales include a streamlined body with a narrow, tapered head, and gray and white patches on their dark skin. Adults are typically longer than 45 feet and weigh 30 to 40 tons. They have no dorsal fin, but a “dorsal hump” two-thirds of the way down the back.

On Saturday and Sunday, representatives of both Heal the Bay and the American Cetacean Society (ACS) will host whale watching on the end of the Santa Monica Pier. With or without binoc- ulars, participants will be on the lookout for gray whales as well as less common sea mammal species of the Santa Monica Bay including dolphins, fin whales, humpback whales or killer whales.

During migration, a mother and calf or sometimes small groups might be seen, says Pratt.

The diet of the gray whale consists of creatures that dwell at the bottom of the ocean.

“Gray whales feed by sucking mud into their mouths, spitting out the mud and catching amphipods and crustaceans in the process,” explains Pratt.

Calves nurse on milk that is 53 percent fat (human breast milk is 2% fat), according to the ACS.

At the aquarium, kids will get the opportunity to try on a “blubber glove” and dip their hands in cold water,” says Chau. “They can then decide whether it would be better to live in the ocean with or without the blubber,” she says.

Gray whales have a layer of six to ten inches of blubber (fatty cells and fibrous connective tissue) protecting them from cold ocean waters.

“They pull it off much better than we could,” Chau jokes.

Though whales are protected them from the cold, not even thick blubber could protect them from hunters. The species was hunted to the edge of extinction from about 1850 to 1937, according to the ACS. They were given partial protection in 1937 and full protection in 1947 by the International Whaling Commission. The population of the species has bounced back and now numbers between 19,000 and 23,000.

These days, orcas (killer whales) are a cause of gray whale deaths, and many gray whales have orca teeth scars on their flukes.

In addition to coloring, craft activities at “Whale of a Weekend” will include kids making fake binoculars out of construction paper that they can then pretend to use during the whale watching. There will be microscopes to look at plankton (a common whale food).

The aquarium features whale artifacts galore, including individual whale bones and a painted whale mural. The collection includes a seven-foot rib and a two-and-a-half-foot vertebra.

Aside from the whale items, the Santa Monica Aquarium features “touch tanks,” where people are able to touch sea creatures native to the Santa Monica Bay, including sea stars and sea cucumbers. The aquarium’s collection includes a rare purple “sunflower star” variety of sea star with 21 arms.

Aquarium visitors are able to watch feedings of horn and swell sharks, and a variety of kelp forest dwellers.

A favorite attraction at the facility is a two-spotted octopus that can camouflage and change its color to match its environment. “Some people have a hard time seeing it at first because it looks like the rock it is sitting on,” says Pratt.

The Santa Monica Aquarium was originally opened as the UCLA Ocean Discovery Center in 1996. UCLA had plans to close it down, but instead allowed Heal the Bay to take control of the facility in March 2003.

The aquarium hosts class trips twice a day Monday through Friday for elementary schools. Most are from the Los Angeles area, but schools from as far away as Bakersfield have utilized the facility.

“Many people don’t even realize that so many interesting species are found right here locally in the Santa Monica Bay, and they are completely impressed with what they see,” says Pratt.

“It also gets people thinking about the impact of humans on the Santa Monica Bay and opens their eyes to the fact that there is a lot here that is worth saving,” says Chau. “Hopefully, it will get people to realize the importance of keeping the Santa Monica Bay a good, clean habitat for all the sea life.”

Heal the Bay is an environmental group that emerged in 1985, led by Dorothy Green, to fight the dumping of barely-treated sewage in to the Santa Monica Bay by the City of Los Angeles. The group continues to this day as an active guardian of the Santa Monica Bay and Southern California coastal waters.

Information, (310) 393-6149.

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