While many boaters have curtailed their weekend day sails and cruises for the winter months, a trip in late January and early February may be well worth enduring the chilly conditions that an off-season day can yield.
These are the prime months to view gray whales as they make their five-knot (about 5.65 miles per hour) passage through our backyard on the way to southern Mexico for the mating season.
It’s proven that most of the grays travel along the invisible line between Point Dume in Malibu and Point Vicente in Palos Verdes as they methodically chip away at the 13,000-mile trek, the longest migration of any mammal on earth.
It’s speculated that the whales use these landmarks as underwater guide posts as they plod towards the warm waters of Mexico.
According to the American Cetacean Society, Los Angeles Chapter, there have been more than 150 gray whales pass by the Palos Verdes point so far this year.
The ACS has been compiling data from a perch 125 feet above Palos Verde’s kelp beds and rocky shoreline since 1979, recording how many gray whales pass by on both the southerly and northerly migratory routes.
They have volunteer “Spotters” positioned high atop the cliff from December 1st until May 15th watching and counting the behemoths as they pass.
They also monitor breaching, spyhopping, rolling, courtship, apparent nursing, possible feeding, and interaction with kelp and other marine mammals, according to project director Alisa Schulman-Janiger.
This year the ACS’s data shows that there were more whales on the move in early January than last year, but still under the ten-year average, and currently the late January statistics show there are slightly lower numbers passing by than last year and significantly lower than the ten-year average.
This data alone doesn’t make any implications towards the solidity of the species’ population, since many of the whales choose a route that is farther offshore and therefore aren’t being counted (it’s thought that about 25 percent use the coastline path), but it does serve to further understand the behavior of these intelligent beings and it gives whale watchers an indication of the traffic level that’s passing through.
Although gray whales were dubbed “devil fish” by whalers back in the early 1800s, based on their reputation of destroying whalers’ boats and sometimes killing the occupants, today they are thought of as just the opposite.
In the lagoons of Southern Mexico, where the birthing takes place, docile mothers and calves allow human contact by raising their heads out of the water or swimming closely by spectators who gather in these areas to see and pet them.
Here in the Santa Monica Bay the whales are usually en route, so there is no time for such niceties. However, there are exceptions. Boaters and surfers have had meetings with grays in the Santa Monica Bay, where the whales showed an amazing curiosity and affability.
“I was out there and I saw a fin flop over and I said ‘uh oh’ and started paddling back in,” said local surfer P.J. Haring, who thought he had just spotted a shark while surfing at a Santa Monica beach.
But after a fellow surfer called to him to come back, he discovered it was a gray whale calf.
“It looked about 20 to 30 feet long,” Haring said. “Four of us were sitting in a circle and it swam underneath and came up in between us, right next to us — if I’m in a car it’s in the passenger seat.”
Haring said the calf hung around for a few minutes swimming closely, looking at them from time to time until they all saw the mother, some 50 yards away, signal to the calf and it obediently swam away.
“Because of the eco-tourism in South Mexico, they’re more and more habituated to people being around,” said Rob Mortensen, assistant curator for the birds and mammal group at the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, of Haring’s experience. “They’ll sometimes stop and look around [during the migration] and since they’re more of a near-shore whale — you’ll find stuff like that happening.”
With that said, whale experts still recommend that whales be given substantial clearance by recreational boaters who happen upon them or seek them out.
“You shouldn’t rush up on a whale or cut it off and it’s best not to change your engine speed or get between mothers and calves,” said Janiger. “The problems that we generally see are with private boaters.
“There are a lot of people who may not be aware that there’s a whale migration going on out here. I sometimes see people on personal watercraft zipping around almost hitting the whales. I’ve seen one whale breach to avoid being hit by a PWC [personal watercraft].
“The best thing to do is maintain the motor’s speed and try to keep 100 yards between you and the whale — you’re not supposed to approach any closer than that [by law].
“Now if the whale decides to come around closer to you — that’s a different story.”
For the next month most of the whales will be traveling south and from late February through mid-May the grays will more commonly be seen moving north back to their arctic feeding grounds.
For whale watching trips in Marina del Rey contact Captain Mike at the Betty-O, (310) 600-3069.