Gray whale sightings are happening in record numbers just off the L.A. coastline

By Pat Reynolds

As seen last week, a migrating gray whale dives beneath the surface of Santa Monica Bay Photo by Pat Reynolds

As seen last week, a migrating gray whale dives beneath the surface of Santa Monica Bay
Photo by Pat Reynolds

There’s little I enjoy more than climbing into my boat and venturing off into the Santa Monica Bay to photograph wildlife. As I sit quietly bobbing in this vast liquid desert it’s never lost on me that a few short miles away one of the largest cities in the world is relentlessly churning. The good news is that while I am here, I am not there. In the boat I turn off the engine and listen. On a good day I hear the sounds of birds arguing, the splash of a pod of dolphin feeding or, on a very good day, the unmistakable exhale of a whale swimming by.

Lately that sound has been more prominent in our local waters. Experts are calling this year’s gray whale migration one of the best for witnessing whales they’ve seen in decades. The American Cetacean Society’s Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project has stated that record numbers of whales have been counted since December, which is when volunteers start manning the observation posts on the cliffs of Palos Verdes.

So far, nearly 2,000 gray whales have been counted (mostly) heading south for the warm waters of Baja Mexico, where the grays typically give birth. According to data supplied by the census project this far exceeds the 10-year average, which is around 600, and significantly tops last year’s numbers. Last February counters logged about 1,200 whales and that, too, was a story.

Whale lovers want to believe that these numbers indicate the rebound of a species that was nearly wiped out by whaling around the turn of the century, but it might be that the whales are simply behaving in a more viewable way.

“What we think is happening is that there is a shift in the migration which is causing more animals to appear closer to shore,” said Kera Mathis, whale biologist from the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. “It’s going to take time to figure this out — we don’t totally know yet.”

Mathis explained it’s quite possible many of the whales that usually travel a route around the backside of Catalina (which would not be seen by average whale watchers) are instead shooting the gap between Palos Verdes and Catalina’s east end. This shift in behavior isn’t clear, but she said it could be related to water temperatures, climate change or something unknown.

Whether it’s a change in behavior or there actually are more whales, this heightened ability to see the massive creatures during their migration has the science community interested and excited. Mathis said there is currently a more comprehensive 24-hour cycle counting of gray whales in the works that would include night vision surveillance.

“In general the gray whale is doing well,” Mathis said. “They’re one of the best-rebounded whales from whaling — their numbers are over 20,000. They’re doing much better than other populations, but as I said, we anticipate that this is a shift in migration patterns.”

Whatever turns out to be the case, it’s all good news for those looking to get out on the water and see whales in their natural environment.

“This is the best season I’ve seen so far,” said Nic Robbins, captain of the Matt Walsh whale-watching boat out of Marina del Rey at Dock 52. “Every trip we go out we see three to five whales consistently.”

Robbins said he regularly has whale sightings right outside the Marina del Rey breakwall and not far off the Santa Monica Pier, often a mile off the beach. In years past, a boat like the Matt Walsh could quite possibly see no whales — it’s by no means a given to spot them, regardless of the regularity of the migration. But this year Robbins said there has only been one day in two months where they came up empty. In addition, he hasn’t had to work so hard to find them.

“Some trips we’ll be 10 minutes outside the breakwater and we’ll run across one,” he said.

This time of year whale-watchers begin to see a shift from exclusively southbound whales to a mixture of those heading north and south. Animals that have done what they need to do in Mexico are on their way back to the Pacific Northwest where the process began, while latecomers are still making their way down the coast. All in all this migration is the longest of any mammal — 10,000 to 12,000 miles.

For those who will venture out in their boats, kayaks or paddleboards attempting to get a peek, experts say avoid interacting with or harassing the animal in any way.

“Many people don’t know that these whales are protected or that getting too close can potentially cause harm to these magnificent animals,” said local marine biologist and author Maddalena Bearzi.

But if you’re going to go out, do it right away: Gray whales typically don’t appear in this area after early May, and soon they’ll only be heading northbound.