Monday, February 24, 2020

Whale Watching




An adult gray whale surfaces near the beach in Malibu. All photos © 2020 Suzanne Guldimanm


They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway-share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.

—Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark


Every winter, California gray whales take part in an epic migration from the Arctic to the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez in Baja, and back again. The first southbound whales are usually spotted passing Malibu in December; the first northbound whales usually begin to appear in February.


One of the first northbound whales we've seen during the current 2020 season. It helps when someone else spots it first and is helpfully pointing!

On the way south the whales are traveling fast and rarely linger; on the journey north, females with new calves stay close to shore. They often travel in small groups made up of adults, calves and young whales, and are often joined by dolphins.

March is usually the peak time to look for northbound gray whales off the coast of Malibu, but numbers of northbound whales have already been spotted, and the migration usually runs through the end of April.

Even though these animals are giants it can still be hard to see them, not unlike Lewis Carroll's long-sought but perpetually elusive snark. How do you see whales? The first rule: take time out to go to the beach and look for them, and don't give up if you don't see any the first time, or the second, or the third.


Here's a closer look at the same whale. That telltale spout is the easiest way to spot a whale, but there are other clues: ripples on the surface of the water, a Loch Ness monster-like glimpse of a tail fluke, flipper, or dorsal ridge, or the presence of other animals like dolphins or gulls, in the area. We'll take a closer look at all of these indicators in this post. 


There are plenty of good options for whale watch cruises out of Ventura, Marina Del Rey and San Pedro, but I like to watch for whales from the shore. Corral, Zuma, Leo Carrillo and the small pocket beaches along PCH between Malibu and Point Mugu beaches are all good spots for whale watching, but the best spot is usually Westward, where the whales come close to shore to feed and rest.

It's worth paying to park in the Westward Beach lot at this time of year. Bring a chair and an umbrella and picnic and make a day of it; or walk up to the top of the Point Dume Nature Preserve and watch for whales from one of the viewing platforms—there are two new platforms this year, although some trails in the nature preserve have been closed for trail work and the new beach staircase that is going in later this spring.

There are no guarantees in whale watching, whether on a boat or on the beach, You may see a dozen or none at all, but an hour  or two spent watching for whales is never time wasted. In its own way, it's a form of meditation.

The first thing I look for is any kind of disturbance on the water: a gathering a birds, ripples on the surface of the water, all of these can be signs that whales and other marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions are present.


The sudden presence of a large number of gulls means a good chance there are marine mammals around. In this case it was dolphins, attracted to the same bait fish the gulls were catching.


Gulls following a dolphin, hoping for a share of lunch.


This lone dolphin caught my eye at Westward Beach. 


There was too much wake out there for just one dolphin. Something much larger was in water.



A massive gray whale surfaced a second later, one of the biggest I've ever seen.


Here's her calf, popping up to spout. 



Most gray whale sightings are of a distant spout or puff of breath far out to sea or a Loch Ness Monster-like hump. My attention was drawn by the narrow line of darker water before I saw the whales spouting.  And the bigger band of dark water in the distance?

That dark line was the wake from a mega-pod of more than 100 common dolphins swimming past, almost out of range for my telephoto lens. 

Often all you see is the puff of breath with no whale in sight. They can hold their breath for a long time and its easy to lose track of them before they surface to breathe again.

During the northbound migration in the spring the whales come closer to shore and linger in one place longer, mothers rest and nurse their calves, but even whales that don't have young may take a break and rest near the shore, offering whale watchers a closer look at the heart-shaped spout that is the classic sign of a gray whale. 


If the whale is close enough to shore, you can sometimes you can hear it before you see it.


A ring like this is produced when the whale exhales and dives. Gray whales feed on the sea floor, scooping up mud that they filter through their baleen for the amphipods, krill, worms, and other invertebrates that are their main food source.  Gray whales are more adaptable than some of their relatives, and have been known to snack on small fish and squid—prey that also attracts dolphins, sea lions and seabirds.

There were two whales here a second ago. The ring of bubbles is obvious, but the smooth oval "footprint" next to it is also evidence of a whale. 


This is what is happening under the water during a spout. By the time someone shouts, "Oh look, a whale!"  The whale has exhaled, inhaled, and vanished with a flick of its powerful tail. 


Here are the "footprints" left behind on the surface of the water.


This is a beach-level view of a whale footprint. 



A second later, all you might see are some telltale bubbles. 

A whale footprint is often really a tail-print.


The gray whale's flukes are huge—easily 12 feet across. It's no wonder the tail leaves a distinctive disturbance in the water.


The tip of one of the two fluke lobes is often all of the whale one actually sees, and it can be mistaken for a dolphin fin at first glance.


The gray whale's enormous flippers are sometimes visible when the whale is rolling over under the water.


The whale's dorsal ridge suggests the back of the classical sea monster.

This species doesn't have dorsal fins, but some gray whales have pronounced dorsal "knuckles" near the tail. 




Sometimes you get a glimpse of a whale's head, or rostrum, out of the water.



You can just see the eye of this young whale as it surfaces to breathe.

Here's the barnacle-covered back of a gray whale's head, with the twin blowholes clearly visible. 


This whale is "spyhopping," poking its head out of the water and looking around.



Here's a view from above, showing how little of the whale is actually visible when it spyhops. A mature gray whale can grow to be 45 feet long, but only a small part of the animal is ever visible to the human observer standing on the beach.

Very rarely you might see a gray whale breeching. I took this photo in 2014 from the side of the road at Corral Beach. Those white lines are the five-foot-long neck groves on the underside of the whale. That's a good 60,000 pounds of marine mammal flying through the air—an impressive sight!


Even when you know you've spotted whales it can be hard to figure out what one is looking at. There are at least three whales here: one head, two tails, and the footprint left by the tail of the first whale as it popped its head out of the water.


There are whales in water in this image—the same three in the pervious photo, but you would never know it at first glance. Whales are elusive: patience and luck are key to seeing them. Gray whales may be giants but they are also fragile. 
The Pacific population of gray whales has recovered after being hunted to edge of extinction in the 20th century, but they are still vulnerable to ship strikes, trash, fishing gear, ocean warming, and even over-enthusiastic whale watchers who sometimes get too close or harass them with boats and drones.

2019 was a dire year for gray whales. There were so many deaths that an Unusual Mortality Event (UME) was declared.  It's important to give these amazing beings space. NOAA recommends observing whales from at least 100 yards away, and never swimming or paddling out to get a closer look. As much as we love to see them, we need to give them the room and peace they need to travel  safely and undisturbed. 

It is also important to continue to fight for protections for marine mammals. The gray whale has had a reprieve, but its future is far from certain, and its fate depends on us. 

Suzanne Guldimann
23 February 2020



Three guesses where the whales are. The sight of whales inspires wonder and joy in people of all ages and backgrounds. That we have the opportunity to witness this extraordinary migration is thanks to the people who fought and continue to fight to save the whales, and the coast they swim past.  Whether one sees a whale or not, an hour or two spent on the beach in February or March watching for these ancient and amazing pilgrims is one of the blessings of the year on the California coast. 

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