Gray whales can be seen in Southern California in record numbers as they head toward Baja Mexico in a journey that began in Alaska. According to the annual Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, which is conducted by the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Cetacean Society, 191 gray whales were spotted in December 2011, while just 26 were seen in December 2010. Another 197 have been spotted this month, as of Saturday.
The ACS' website states that year-to-year fluctuations in the number of whales can sometimes be explained by weather, shifts in migratory path preferences and food availability.
The shore-based whale census, which takes place on the Palos Verdes Peninsula at the , has been conducted since 1979. Trained observers spot and record Pacific gray whales (also known as Eastern North Pacific gray whales and California gray whales) on their annual migration from Alaska to Mexico and back from Dec. 1 through May 15 each year. Members of the public can stop by during daylight hours.
ACS volunteers have also been looking at a group of ten orcas (killer whales) that were widely reported on local television news earlier this month. On Jan. 4, five northbound orcas encountered a southbound gray whale and "interacted" for about five minutes. Orcas are the only known predators of gray whales.
The ACS stated on its website, "The gray whale [then] moved close to shore and went into the kelp; it rolled and fluked and milled in that spot for about 20 minutes, before moving on south past our viewing spot. There were no visible signs of blood or damage on the gray whale."
The whale census operates during daylight hours and volunteers can see only as far out as their powerful spotting scopes and binoculars will allow. So, the number of whales they're able to count is probably only a small fraction of the entire population.
The gray whale migration path moves directly past Malibu, with well-documented maps published by the California Gray Whale Coalition showing the route to extend from the shoreline to about 100 miles out. Theoretically, the large number of whales migrating south relatively close to the shore could have been observed by any number of Malibu locals.
The National Park Service and various other sources say that the best place to view whales in Malibu from the shore is at the Point Dume headlands because of its elevated height and the whales can come close-in due to the depth.
Los Angeles County lifeguard Capt. Remy Smith at the headquarters on said that a gray whale had been spotted earlier this month near the pinnacle rocks off Point Dume. He said Malibu's county lifeguards have also "received reports of numerous sightings up at Anacapa [Island] and the Ventura area" from Ventura Harbor authorities. Smith said that in previous years, lifeguards have seen gray whales in Malibu "right on the surf line."
Whale watching boat trips from the have been canceled until further notice because of pier damage caused by .
Gray whales are believed to have the longest migration of any mammal on earth, leaving their feeding grounds in Alaska each year to journey to Baja Mexico to mate and give birth—a round trip of nearly 12,500 miles. They usually migrate in groups of one to five, moving at about 5 mph, with about six rest stops per day. The whales average 39 feet in length, weigh 20 to 35 tons and are bottom feeders.