Possibly the most perfect embodiment of persistence and diligence is the immensely long migration of the California gray whale.
From now until the beginning of May, these 35,000-pound giants will be passing through this area on their way to Baja California, Mexico and then back up to their summer homes in Alaska.
The journey is nearly 13,000 miles in all — the longest migration of any animal on earth.
Usually around October, the whales leave Alaska and begin their coastal trip down to the warm waters of northern Mexico, mostly for the purpose of breeding.
At a steady three to five knots, the whales tirelessly plow through the familiar waters — never stopping at any point along the way.
“There are certain basic preferred migration routes,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, project director of the American Cetacean Society Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project.
“They can change somewhat from one year to another, but basically the majority of whales tend to prefer an offshore southbound route from Point Conception to Baja through the Channel Islands.
“When they head back up the coast, they generally take a more coastal route, particularly the mothers with newborns they have just given birth to in Baja. They hug the coast going back up, so we always have higher numbers going northbound than southbound.”
Janiger’s project is conducted from atop a cliff above the waters off Palos Verdes and has been faithfully monitoring the gray whale’s migration since 1979.
From a station situated on Point Vicente, volunteer staff observers watch the waters constantly, seven days a week from the beginning of December to the middle of May, documenting whale behavior and its surrounding circumstances.
The project is the longest-running shore-based whale census in the world.
“It’s basic research,” said Janiger. “It’s baseline data that is used to supply other researchers as well as ourselves. For example, we give out information to the national fishery service and to the international whaling commission.”
The staff at the ACS typically sees 1,000 whales per season pass the point and also conducts whale watching outings, seminars and other educational programs.
They have witnessed all different types of whale behavior from stealth incognizance to full-scale breaching.
While they observe the whales, they are also observing human interaction with the species.
Whale watching and private boats have the unique privilege of witnessing the animals in their habitat, and the organization is hopeful that the public is careful and respectful upon their meetings with whales.
“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.
“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. Now if the whale decides to come around closer to you — that’s a different story.”
For those without their own boat, the Betty O, skippered by Captain Mike Reinsch, is the whale watching resource in Marina del Rey.
Reinsch has been scouring the Santa Monica Bay for years seeking out passing whales to observe.
The Betty O will be venturing out for the first watch of the season this weekend.
“We saw a bunch of them last February around Manhattan Reef, which is right outside Manhattan Pier about a mile off the beach,” Reinsch said. “There were about four or five of them and they were just kind of hanging around. It looked like they were sunbathing. On another day, I saw one breaching. It was like a Marlin in the way it was acting.”
Although the grays don’t appear every day in large groups or in the act of breaching, Reinsch usually has a sighting or two per day.
In the bay, the preferred course for the whales is on an imaginary line between Point Dume and Point Vicente.
Statistically, the peak time for migration traffic is the third week of January into February. In February and March, it is common to see them going in either direction — north or south.
Both Reinsch and Janiger agree that respect and alertness are of great importance when viewing these enormous animals.
The grays are typically docile and peaceful animals, but many are nervous mothers with their young and need to be given a wide berth.
For more information about gray whales and volunteering at the American Cetacean Society, log on to www.acc-la.org
To book a whale-watching afternoon aboard the Betty O or to inquire about times and fares, call (310) 822-3625.