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William Lambert, SBNMH Ty Warner Sea Center

Watching All the Whales Go By

Volunteers Welcome to Help Count the Northbound Grays


A cluster of people stood in the afternoon sun atop a bluff at Coal Oil Point Reserve, listening to Michael Smith discuss counting gray whales in the Santa Barbara Channel. “How the whales appear in the context of their environment is one of the things you will learn as a counter,” he said.

Illustrating his point to would-be volunteers for Gray Whales Count (GWC), a local group he coordinates for an annual whale census in the channel, Smith passes out pairs of high-powered binoculars and tells us to find the sea otter in a nearby kelp canopy. I scan the rolling carpet of golden brown algae and, with some difficulty, spot a couple of likely objects. But they do not move. I note a gull standing on the canopy with its back to me and wonder what it’s looking at before I pass on the binocs.

After a few minutes, Smith smiles and directs our attention to a dark, horizontal object just beyond the gull. The bird is watching an otter feed and hoping for leftovers, we are told. With the wind chill climbing, we move into the reserve’s Cliff House to learn how to identify and count gray whales, the magnificent coastal commuters with which we normally share the channel from December through May.

Measuring tail flukes to rostrum, an adult gray whale runs between 40 and 45 feet long, about the length of a Greyhound Bus, and weighs 30 tons or more (females are somewhat longer and heavier). Calves weigh nearly 1,500 pounds and are about a dozen feet long when born in the warm, salty waters of Baja California’s lagoons. They suckle some of the richest milk in mammaldom (more than 50 percent fat) and will have grown a few feet by the time they pass Cliff House on their way to feeding grounds in the Arctic.

Click to enlarge photo

William Lambert, SBNMH Ty Warner Sea Center

Even before the days of 19th-century coastal whaling, which included a land-based station at Goleta, humans realized that grays adhere to a near-shore migration route, now estimated at 6,000 miles or longer. Marine mammal scientists are not sure why this is so, but some believe that grays memorize key features of the route, popping their heads vertically above the ocean (called spy-hopping) to check out their locations.

Of course, they may be looking back at the boatloads of whale watchers they attract along the West Coast, or displaying innate curiosity, or scanning for orcas, their major predator now that they are protected from commercial whalers. In fact, orcas are known to wait for unwary grays up the coast at Monterey Bay, a place researchers have named “Ambush Alley.” (Migration from Baja to the Arctic is displayed on an interactive map created for the Public Broadcasting System by Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ocean Adventures project .

Even from the GWC viewing station 35 feet above the channel’s surface, counters may have difficulty spotting the dark backs of the northbound whales-most of them females or mother-calf pairs-as they undertake one of the longest migrations of any mammal on Earth. Smith routinely warns volunteers, who began duty this month, that they will face the sun all day long and must wear sunglasses and sunscreen.

It’s possible to see mirages under certain lighting conditions on the channel,” he said, recalling the mirror image of a local whale watch boat and the describing the hazy boxes on the horizon that are actually container ships. Some whales have been seen pushing through the kelp forests, looking as if they were in camouflage.

Click to enlarge photo

William Lambert, SBNMH Ty Warner Sea Center

Using reticle scale binoculars with built-in compasses, the counters record every sea mammal they see crossing an imaginary line from their station to the west end of Santa Cruz Island. A spotting scope helps identify the species, but the realistic range for identification is three to four miles, Smith notes, adding, “It gives a good sampling field for our corridor of the channel.”

Counters are asked to take two-hour shifts at least once a week for the run of the census, which ends on May 17 this year, but arrangements are flexible and influenced by weather. Details and sign-up instructions are found on the GWC Web site .

Last year, the counters recorded 647 northbound whales, including 59 calves. They also observed 28 southbound grays, a northern elephant seal, six humpback whales, and nearly 2,000 dolphins of various species.

This is the fifth year of Gray Whale Count, which is a research and education project of UCSB’s Coal Oil Point Reserve and the American Cetacean Society’s Channel Islands chapter, with partners at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Cascadia Research Collective in Washington. Data collected here is funneled into the National Marine Fisheries Service’s gray whale census.

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