A gray whale spyhops—poking its head, or rostrum, out of the water for a look around just yards offshore at Westward Beach. All photos © 2016 S. Guldimann
It's a good year for whale watching, on track to be the second best year ever after the record-setting 2014-15 season. According to the American Cetacean Institute's Gray Whale Census Project, a total of 1,407 southbound and 747 northbound whales have been observed so far by volunteers at Point Vincente.
I had the opportunity to write about the whale migration and the ACI's program for the Malibu Surfside News last month. You can read that article here. However, it's challenging to fit everything one would like to share into a newspaper article—gray whales are one of the largest living animals, after all—so here's an update on the 2016 gray whale migration, from a front row seat at Westward and Zuma beaches.
Spouts are the easiest evidence of whales to spot. This is a mama and baby surfacing together.
The flukes, or tail, of the gray whale can grow to be 12 feet wide. If you're lucky, you may see a whale "tail-lobbing," but it's more common to see just part of the tail, like this fluke lobe.
Gray whales range from medium gray to almost black. The white spots and blotches are scars and discolorations from barnacles and other parasites. Researchers can often identify individuals based on the pattern of spots and scars.
Gray whales don't have dorsal fins, instead, they have a "dorsal hump." Some gray whales have a prominent row of bumps, called dorsal knuckles, that make them resemble the classical sea monster. Only one of this trio of whales has the conspicuous dorsal ridges.
Gray whales often seem to travel in small groups, staying fairly close together, which can increase their resemblance to a sea monster. Calves frequently swim above the cow, and stay close for protection from white sharks and orca.
This is the largest gray whale I've seen this season. Judging from the size of the dolphins that were keeping it company, it must have been close to 50 feet in length, the upper range for a gray whale.
It's tempting to imagine gray whales, like the one sneaking past these two whale watchers, may enjoy people watching as much as humans enjoy whale watching. In reality, the whales are too busy with their own concerns to pay much attention to us. That's why whale experts strongly recommend kayakers, paddle boarders, surfers and swimmers stay a respectful distance away.
|Here's a size comparison showing an average gray whale and an average human. Gray whales are on the smaller end of the cetacean size scale—no where near the size of our living leviathans the blue whale and the fin whale, but they are still among the largest living animals, which makes it all the more remarkable that they come so close to shore. Illustration: Chris Huh, via Wikimedia Commons|
The gray whale migration usually lasts until late May. There are all kinds of amazing whale watching boat trips available, and volunteers are always needed for the ACI whale census down at Palos Verdes Peninsula, but for many local whale watchers, the best place to be is at Westward or Zuma Beach. These beaches always seems strangely empty when the last migrants have passed by, despite the beginning of the human summer beach migration. It's comforting to know that, thanks to the work of generations of conservationists, the whales will be back again next winter.