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WHALE WATCHING 101

Hugh's avatar

Conservation | Whale Watching | Mammals

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Hugh

Breaching whales within a stone throw of the beach. Dolphins in the thousands frolicking in mile long columns causing the sea to froth. Killer whales swimming just below the surface with their tall dorsal fins undulating in the air as they knifes through the water. Giant sperm whales surfacing like Moby Dick, bringing their large eyes out of the water to survey their domain. Is it the wind swept coast of Patagonia? Could it be the wilds of New Zealand? Maybe an exotic locale visited only by adventurers and hard-core field researchers? No, it is actually the waters of and near our own San Pedro Channel, running between Catalina Island and the cliffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula and from the shores of Orange County to the west end of Santa Monica Bay.

With the gray whale migration beginning, I’d like to give everyone an idea of what you might see if you journey on one of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s whale watch trips. The Aquarium is strategically located just inshore of a body of water known as the Southern California Bight. For its size, this area has one of the most diverse populations of marine mammals in the world. Being on the border of where warm southern waters meet the colder waters of the north, the region can have visitors from both environments.

In my 20 years of observing, researching, rescuing, rehabilitating and enjoying the aquatic animals of the region, I have encountered over two dozen different species of marine mammals in the San Pedro Channel so I can tell you honestly that you can never know what you might see on a trip off our shores. To give you can idea of what’s out there, the marine mammals and other creatures that I have observed in the bight include: Gray Whales, Sperm Whales, Humpback Whales, Blue Whales, Fin Whales, Minke Whales, Pygmy Sperm Whales, Pilot Whales, Killer Whales, False Killer Whales, Cuviers Beaked Whales, Stegnegers Beaked Whales, Long Beaked Common Dolphins, Short Beaked Common Dolphins, Pacific White-sided Dolphins, Risso Dolphins, Northern Right Whale Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins, Dalls Porpoises, California Sea Lions, Stellar Sea Lions, Northern Fur Seals, Guadalupe Fur Seals, Northern Elephant Seals, Pacific harbor seals, Southern Sea Otters, Blue Sharks, Mako Sharks, Basking Sharks and even Great White Sharks.

On a whale watch trip you may encounter our resident pods of Pacific Bottlenose dolphins as they shuttle up and down the coast just off the surf-line. Unlike their wimpier cousins, the Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins of the Flipper television series fame, these West Coast critters are the “Arnold Schwarzenegger” of the dolphin world. Being much longer and beefier, the size of our Bottlenose “Dolphinators” usually surprise folks who are used to their East Coast counterparts that they see in marine parks.

As you journey a little further out to sea, shoals of thousands of common dolphins may join your boat to ride its wake. The most fun to watch of all the dolphins in the Channel, these black and white dolphins are a blur of leaps, side flops and even spins. They remind one of an acrobatic marine park show except multiplied by thousands of animals as they compete with each other to have the prime bow or stern wake position. Using the power of the ship-generated wave, they launch themselves into the air like a sub-launched cruise missile. You would think that with their prowess in aerial displays, the common dolphin would be a robust creature. However, the common dolphins that I have encountered beached seemed surprisingly delicate. Their sleek bodies are easily scarred. And speaking of scarred; the tall dorsal finned Risso dolphins have become a common sight in the Channel in the last 20 years. Although the Risso’s rostrum appears white from a distance, when you get closer you can see that the white actually comes from heavy scarring on their heads, indicating an aggressive lifestyle. Before 1987, you seldom saw a Risso in the San Pedro Channel. Their niche was filled by the then plentiful Pilot whale. But as more and more Risso dolphins were seen in the area, the sightings of Pilot whales fell to the point where they are now a rare encounter.

During the winter, Pacific gray whales transit the channel on their annual migration to and from the breeding lagoons of Baja and the feeding ground off Alaska. They support a vast local whale-watch industry and are the main goal of the Aquarium’s whale watch trip. You never know where or when you might sight a marine mammal. A few years ago I was surprised to find a yearling gray whale in the mouth of the Los Angeles River near the Aquarium. Bottlenose dolphins also make regular forays into the waters near the Queen Mary. Sea lions and harbor seals have been known to investigate Rainbow Harbor. However, most of the whales and other critters are found out in the channel and that’s where whale watch boats concentrate their search for cetaceans. Not only Grays but also Blue, Fin, Sperm, Minke and Killer whales have recently been seen in the San Pedro Channel.

One of the best methods of searching for whales from a boat is to keep scanning the ocean surface using only your naked eyes while consciously refocusing on different distances from the vessel. Use binoculars to investigate DIWs (Disturbances In Water) but be sure not to scan too much with them. This helps you find whale clues and also protects your eyes from ocean fixation which can cause sea sickness. Using sea sickness remedies and dressing warmly in layers will also add to the enjoyment of the voyage. To distinguish between a splash made from a diving pelican and a whale’s blow, look for the lingering tower of mist from the spout. On most light wind days, the blow will hang in the air while a splash from a pelican will dissipate quickly. Veteran whale spotters will also look for smooth spots trailing on the water cause by the movement of a submerged whale’s fluke. Flocks of sea birds concentrating in an area can be an indicator of schooling fish being forced to the surface by a predator such as dolphins and sea lions or even a Humpback or Killer whale. But probably the most important tip I can give to a passenger on a whale watch trip is to not only enjoy the migrating gray whales, but also the vast variety of birds and other animals that you will encounter along the way. You may not only experience a whale, but perhaps also a brown pelican diving on a fish, a sea lion leaping onto a crowded buoy knocking other sea lions off it or maybe even a blue shark checking out your boat. Every whale watch voyage is a unique experience. With a major concentration of market squid (Loligo opalescens) spawning in the channel during the past few weeks, there may be many different species headed to the area to be part of this bountiful food chain.

Good luck on your next whale watching trip and may a pod of dolphins escort your vessel on your voyage to the whales.

WHALE WATCHING 101
A Gray whale checks out a kelp paddy off Southern California.  | Hugh Ryono
WHALE WATCHING 101
Three common dolphins porpoise out of the water. These dolphins are common sightings on whale watch trips.  | Hugh Ryono
WHALE WATCHING 101
A surfacing Pacific Bottlenose dolphin checks out a passing Western gull.  | Hugh Ryono
WHALE WATCHING 101
Recently, Killer whales have been seen in the San Pedro Channel.  | Hugh Ryono

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Anitza's avatar

Anitza

Thursday, January 03, 2008 02:14 PM

Hugh, these were really great tips! The only thing that I have to add to that is to bundle up! I went out twice (well, four times if you count two trips a day) this weekend and it gets really cold out there! I thought I was prepared the first day, but I wasn’t. The second day I came back with gloves, a scarf, and a really big jacket.

And yes, use your favorite sea sickness remedy even as a precaution!

Once again, great tips, and awesome photos!

Hugh's avatar

Hugh

Friday, January 04, 2008 03:49 PM

Hi Anitza,

You’re right! Dressing warmly is very important! I usually suggest dressing in layers so that you can adjust your warmth accordingly. I also like a can of 7-up or ginger-ale before a whale watch trip. Something about the ginger tends to help keep sea sickness away.

Hugh

MarineDepot's avatar

MarineDepot

Tuesday, January 08, 2008 04:13 PM

Great photos. :-D

eco_savvy's avatar

eco_savvy

Wednesday, January 09, 2008 10:13 AM

Such good advice! Especially liked the comment on bundling up. I went on a blue whale watching trip near Santa Cruz island and lord was it FREEZING when we were out there. My friends and I insisted on standing at the very end of the front of the ship for plain coolness factor and the wind chill was so cold! Worth it though. Next time I will be bringing many more layers =)

Hugh's avatar

Hugh

Wednesday, January 09, 2008 11:33 AM

I have to admit that I also used to always stand in the front of the boat on whale watch voyages. It was a cool spot to take pictures from but it was hard to protect my camera gear from the sea spray that you’re exposed to up there. And yes, it does get a lot colder on the bow. BTW: Two of my favorite pictures are the dolphin surfacing underneath the sea gull and the whale fluking just offshore that you see above in the blog. Those shot were taken from the back of the boat. Just goes to show that anywhere on the boat can be a good spot to watch from.

eco_savvy's avatar

eco_savvy

Wednesday, January 09, 2008 04:30 PM

I would love to go on another whale watching trip! I have gone on two, one around Catalina in search of gray whales, and the other I mentioned around Santa Cruz island in search of blue whales. I can’t believe how many we saw….15!! It was amazing. To explain how huge they are is pointless…it makes me speechless. We also saw one humpback whale which was great for me becuase I had just done a report on them for my marine mammal class.

I really hope to see orca’s in the wild at some point. Hopefully soon?

All blogs and comments represent the views of the individual authors and not necessarily those of the Aquarium.

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