The annual Pacific gray whale migration has begun in Southern California and whale watchers are already excited about the number of sightings near the South Bay this week. | » Whales get protection from ships
About 100 Cabrillo Marine Aquarium volunteer naturalists climbed aboard the Redondo Beach Voyager Wednesday morning at the unofficial start of the local whale-watching season. It was too windy for the boat to venture out to areas where the gray whales might be spotted, but there are already indications that lots of the 50-foot-long mammals will be seen through the end of the season in May.
"Last season, our gray whales migrated closer to shore and our counts were quite high," said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director of the annual gray whale census count at Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes. "The migration started earlier than usual. This year, the same thing may be happening."
The census, sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society, has been taking place since 1979. Last season, volunteer whale counters posted at the Interpretive Center logged 672 southbound and 1,133 northbound gray whales from December to May. These counts were higher than the previous season, and included a record 260 northbound mother-child pairs.
Each winter, the whales swim south in one of the longest known mammalian migrations. On the 14,000-mile round-trip, they go without food as they seek out warm lagoons in Baja, Mexico, to give birth and mate. They must give birth in warm water because their babies are not born with enough blubber to insulate them against the cold Alaskan seas.
Most gray whales are born between the last week of December and the first week of February.
Schulman-Janiger said that, by Wednesday, 120 gray whales had already been counted traveling south past the Palos Verdes Peninsula this month. That is more than in most years, and it may be as a result of ice forming over the Bering Sea earlier than usual, she said.
Gray whales feed on tiny amphipods that live in massive quantities in the mud below the Bering and Chukchi seas. To eat, the toothless whales dive to the ocean floor, suck up mud and then filter out the water and mud through broomlike baleen plates hanging from their top jaws in place of teeth. The remaining crustaceans are swallowed.
Since ice formed over their feeding grounds earlier this year, they may have begun migrating earlier, Schulman-Janiger said.
Other less regular marine mammal visitors this month have included fin whales and killer whales, Schulman-Janiger said. Four killer whales that have been seen in recent years were spotted on three days this month. Fin whales, which are the second largest of all whales, have also been seen lunge-feeding in the area.
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium Programs Director Larry Fukuhara told volunteer naturalists on Wednesday who will accompany local whale-watching boats to teach passengers about the whales how to go about finding the elusive creatures.
"How do we spot a whale?" Fukuhara asked. "Their noses are on top of their heads. We look at the horizon where the sky meets the water and look for a blow. If you see it, yell: `Thar she blows!"'
Want to go?
What: Pacific gray whale watching season began Wednesday and lasts through mid-April
Whale watching boats: Redondo Beach Voyager Excursions offers daily trips at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 per person, and $15 for children 12 and under.
Spirit Cruises in San Pedro has trips at 12:45 p.m. on weekends for a cost of $25 per adult and $15 per child. Weekday and weekend morning trips are also available for groups of 50 or more.
Information: Voyager Excursions can be reached at www.voyagerexcursions.com or 310-955-0512.
Spirit Cruises can be reached at www.spiritmarine.com or 310-548-8080.
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