Thanks to a surprisingly strong surge during the past several days, a record number of Pacific gray whale sightings off Southern California has marine mammal enthusiasts in whale heaven and suggests that the beloved cetaceans began their southbound migration about two weeks early.
An early migration, most likely the result of excellent summer feeding conditions in Arctic waters, implies that the whale population is healthy and perhaps continuing to rebound from a drastic population decline from 1998 to 2002.
Volunteer spotters through Wednesday afternoon had logged 166 sightings since the American Cetacean Society project opened for the season on December 1. The previous high for December was 133 in 1996.
Gray whales perform a marathon round-trip migration spanning 10,000 to 12,000 miles. They spend the summers feeding on the ocean floor in the Bering and Chukchi seas above the Arctic Circle and utilize three vast lagoons along Baja California for breeding and nursing.
The 166 figure is the most since 130 gray whales were spotted during December of 2004 and it represents the type of numbers more typical of the second week of January, when the southbound migration begins to peak off Southern California.
NOAA plans to conduct aerial surveys soon to determine how many of the whales on this season’s southbound migration are pregnant.
Commercial whale-watching operations, meanwhile, are sending out full boats and passengers are marveling at all the whales in their midst. Most landings have already recorded dozens of sightings. Donna Kalez, who runs Dana Wharf Whale Watching, said that the landing’s first gray whale last year was seen on December 23. This year it was November 23.
The landing’s December count in 2010 was only eight gray whales. It surpassed 30 sightings on Wednesday and a day earlier it recorded its first sighting of a mother gray whale with her calf. Perhaps the most amazing sighting of the season was made by scuba divers off Laguna Beach. A juvenile gray whale approached the divers, who videotaped the dramatic event (at right).
Pacific gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994. The population had reached a high of about 29,000 but suffered from “unusual mortality events” in 1999 and 2000, following extremely poor feeding seasons caused by heavy ice cover and displaced food sources (gray whales feed primarily on tiny crustaceans plowed from the sandy bottom).
Between 1998 and 2002, the population dropped by more than a third, to 18,000. It’s now estimated at 20,000 and recent productive feeding seasons are helping to fuel the slow comeback.
“We’re seeing them come back from that terrible time and although it’s not as high as we hoped, we had a pretty good calf season last year, and we think this might be a baby-boom year,” Schulman-Janiger said. “There have already been a handful of cow-calf pairs spotted and we expect to see a lot more soon.”
Photos by Alisa Schulman-Janiger. In affiliation with Grind TV. Environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.