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Watching Breaching Whales From The Cliffs

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Animal Updates | Mammals | Volunteering | Whale Watching

Thursday, January 05, 2012


Breaching Gray Whales and Aggressive Looking Orcas Make for Exciting Whale Watching from Point Vicente

There are few places in the world where you can stand in one spot and have the potential of spotting two dozen species of marine mammals. One of those places is in the Aquarium of the Pacific own backyard. The cliffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula just a few miles up the coast offers a unique vantage point for sighting marine mammals without having the threat of sea sickness.

For 25 years I’ve been coming up to “PV”, as it’s known to locals, to scan for whales, dolphins and pinnipeds for research and for pleasure. My favorite spot for viewing is from the high cliffs of Point Vicente near the lighthouse there. To give you an idea of why I make the drive to that spot every year here is a list of the marine mammals I’ve seen from there with my binoculars since 1987.

Gray Whale, Blue Whale, Fin Whale, Humpback Whale, Sperm Whale, Minke Whale, Killer Whale, Pilot Whale, False Killer Whale, Brydes Whale, Possible Melon Headed or Pygmy Killer Whale, Possible Cuviers Beaked Whale, Long Beak Common Dolphin, Short Beaked Common Dolphin, Bottlenose Dolphin, Rissos Dolphin, Pacific Whitesided Dolphin, Northern Right Whale Dolphin, Dalls Porpoise, California Sea Lion, Stellar Sea Lion, Northern Fur Seal, Guadeloupe Fur Seal, Harbor Seal, Northern Elephant Seal and Southern Sea Otter. And if you add in two stranded cetacean species that I’ve encountered during my marine mammal rescue days; Stejneger’s Beaked Whale and the Pygmy Sperm Whale you can see that there are a lot of marine mammal species out there in our local waters. Incidental sightings of Great White Sharks attacking sea lions and huge Basking Sharks traveling up the channel round out the menagerie that is viewable from PV.

Last week over the holidays I spent a few days at Point Vicente scanning for whales for an ongoing Gray Whale research study, The American Cetacean Society’s Gray Whale Census and Behavioral Project, that is based there. In just those few days of watching from shore I witnessed a gray whale breach several times, watched the first gray whale calf of the season pass by the point and enjoyed the view of several hundred common dolphins leaping and frolicking in the waters offshore as well as the resident bottlenose dolphins that can be seen daily passing by the lighthouse as if they were commuting to and from work.

I also had the pleasure of being a part of the first official sighting of killer whales for the Gray Whale Census in 2012 on New Years day. There is an old saying on the cliff that if you had to wonder if the sighting is of Rissos dolphins, a critter easily mistaken for female killer whale because of their tall dorsal fins, or of killer whales they are probably the former. Fortunately for me my sighting was of a large male with a very tall dorsal fin surfacing amongst 7 or 8 smaller Orcas. There is no mistaking a big male killer whale at the surface. It’s just impressive to see how high the dorsal fin gets while surfacing and the little wobble it makes in the air when the fin is no longer supported by water. I’ve seen Orcas several times over the years and it always fills me with excitement to see them.

This pod was particularly exciting as one of the killer whales tried to intimidate a small boat that was following them. At first the pod was leisurely headed away from the boat when suddenly one of the whales turned around and started rushing towards it. It made several aggressive looking lunge porpoises as it swam toward the boat, slamming the water hard with its belly. As it neared the boat it dove under the hull. Reversing its direction underwater it then breached within a few feet of the bow. The people in the boat looked to be in the splash zone when the whale landed back into the water after the breach! I can only speculate why the whale did what it did. Perhaps it was a show of aggression or maybe even a sign of play. Either way it was surreal to watch and reinforces the idea that these are wild creatures and like any wild animal should be treated with respect and common sense caution when encountered.

The best part about watching cetaceans from the cliffs is that you can watch and get to know their behavior in the wild without the time and weather constraints that affect viewing from a boat. Of course you get a nice close up view from a whale watching boat but it is kind of nice to get that wide view from the cliffs once in a while where you can see all the factors that contribute to an animal’s behavior.

It’s going to be an exciting year for whale watching. Check it out by boat or from shore. It’s worth it!

Watching Breaching Whales From The Cliffs
A young gray whale dives near a skin diver's inflatable. The diver must have gotten a great look at the whale underwater!  | Hugh Ryono
Watching Breaching Whales From The Cliffs
Seen through the haze: a young orca's rapidly (aggressively?) heads towards a small boat that was following its pod.  | Hugh Ryono
Watching Breaching Whales From The Cliffs
Seen through the haze: at first we thought the killer whale had breached into the boat. However the Orca actually jumped within a few feet of the bow of the boat sending a deluge of water over it when it reentered the water which had made us think that the whale had struck it.  | Hugh Ryono
Watching Breaching Whales From The Cliffs
Point Vicente Lighthouse. From the cliffs around the lighthouse you have the potential to see two dozen species of marine mammals.  | Hugh Ryono

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