My First Encounter with Gray Whales on their Epic Migration Route

By Gabrielle Dorr, Communications Specialist 

It was a rare cold and wet January day in southern California when someone at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Palos Verdes, California, handed me a pair of binoculars. Suddenly I caught the blows of four gray whales about one mile from shore. My eyes were glued to the ocean for over an hour as I tried to catch any other glimpse of a whale. I began to understand the draw of volunteering to track these amazing creatures, and how important it is that we all follow whale-safe viewing guidelines at this time of year. 

My host was Joyce Daniels, long-time volunteer for the American Cetacean Society Los Angeles Chapter supporting their ACS\LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project. Daniels, who has been tracking whales since 1994, spends every weekday from noon to sunset at the Center during gray whale migration season, which runs from December to May.

 2 whale whatchers with binocs

Volunteers with the American Cetacean Society search for migrating gray whales at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Palos Verdes, California. Photo: Gabrielle Dorr, NOAA

Volunteers like Daniels record the timing of gray whale sightings, note their distance from shore, and record observations of interesting behaviors. They also count sightings of other cetaceans traveling through the area. The job is important, so they are there rain or shine. Daniels spent part of the day I visited huddled inside at the observation window with eight other volunteers waiting for the heavy rain to pass.

“You just never know what you are going to see from day to day—that’s what motivates me. One time I saw a pod of orcas attack and prey on a gray whale calf. That was very emotional for me but I know it is just the natural cycle of life,” says Daniels.

grey whale breaching

A gray whale "spy hops" to see above the water line. Photo: Chris Johnson, NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Over 30 years of data have been collected by this citizen science effort which was first founded by Alisa Schulman-Janiger in 1984. Schulman, who is still director and coordinator of this 33 year endeavor, has shared data with NOAA Fisheries for use in population models. This data was key in validating a gray whale migration model developed by NOAA Fisheries in 2011. The model was designed to predict the timing of migration and the number of whales that might be passing through a particular area at any given time.

“This citizen science group is definitely a trusted resource for NOAA Fisheries,” says Monica DeAngelis, Marine Mammal Biologist with NOAA Fisheries.

NASA and NOAA Fisheries are now using a modified version of this model in a joint project titled WhaleWatch. This project is helping to reduce human impacts on whales by combining satellite telemetry and remotely sensed environmental data to predict the number and location of whales within a two-week window. This prediction tool could help inform the shipping industry to avoid collisions with whales, as well as fishermen trying to avoid entangling a whale in their fishing gear. 

At the Center, the rain finally passes and a volunteer interrupts the low chatter in the room with a shout: “I have two blows straight ahead.” Everyone leaps into action and heads back outside. There we find a few brave volunteers who had been seeking refuge under an awning during the pounding rain. They sighted a group of four gray whales heading south.

The gray whale’s migration is one of the longest routes ever recorded and is two-phased. At the beginning of their migration, which starts in December, males and females, that are pregnant from the prior year, head south from Alaska to Baja California. The females normally give birth in Baja but some have been seen with calves during their southbound migration indicating that the female gray whales can give birth en route.  Then in March, males migrate north to feed, followed by mother and calf pairs in April and May. 

“Last year [2015] was a record year for southbound migration sightings in our thirty three years of data, so we are all wondering what will happen this year.  So far, sightings are above average but below last season,” explains Daniels.

In 2015, NOAA documented and tracked some unprecedented temperature anomalies such as the “blob” and El Niño. These anomalies affected the spatial distribution and health of many marine species but it is unclear if they had any impact on gray whale populations and their migration patterns.

“During El Niño years, since the ocean is warmer, we generally see less prey available for whales to eat. With past El Niño events we usually saw an impact, such as lower pregnancy rates; two years later and we expect to see the same this time around,” says DeAngelis. 

I bid farewell to Daniels and the rest of the volunteers and watch through my rear view mirror as the sun sets over the ocean behind me. I can’t stop thinking about how thrilling it was to see gray whales for the first time and when I will take up Daniels’ offer to train me as a new volunteer. 

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