Like clockwork, just after Christmas, the annual gray whale migration begins.
As many as 27,000 gray whales head south to the lagoons off the Baja Peninsula to mate and give birth. The mesmerizing nature exhibit never fails to amaze onlookers, sparking the increase in whale-watching day trips in Southern California every year.
“We’re so lucky to be in Santa Monica Bay, they must be right by us,” said Caryn Stanton, whale watching coordinator at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro.
This year’s migration is well underway – some 30 whales have been counted so far by whale counters stationed near the Point Vicente Lighthouse in Rancho Palos Verdes – and public tour boats are already running or preparing to launch.
Harbor Breeze offers daily excursions co-sponsored by the Aquarium of the Pacific from Long Beach.
The Cabrillo Aquarium Whalewatch program also sponsors tours of Marina del Rey (on the Matt Walsh at 10 a.m. daily except Tuesdays) and Long Beach (Spirit Cruises, beginning Jan. 18). Tours of Redondo Beach on the Indian excursion ship are also planned as part of the Cabrillo program, but dates have not been announced.
Since last year, regular whale-watching tours to San Pedro from the aquarium have been disrupted by waterfront development that has forced Spirit Cruises to relocate to Long Beach. It is hoped that some San Pedro tours can resume in about a year, Stanton said.
While the migration season, including travel south and north, lasts through April, the waters off southern California are seeing more whales overall in recent years, said Diane Alps, director of the Education for the Cabrillo Aquarium Whale Watching Program.
“And now it’s not just about gray whales anymore,” Alps said. “In the mid-2000s, 2007 or 2008, we started seeing humpback whales and fin whales. 2010 and 2011 were great blue whale years so that brought us all year round (whale season). It happens all along the coast.
Rare killer whales have recently been spotted around the Channel Islands and may end up approaching the mainland coast in time, Alps said.
But it all started with the migration of gray whales, which now triggers the annual launch of fleets of catamarans that allow passengers to get a closer look at marine life.
Day trips are on the rise and are available from multiple ports, including Long Beach, Marina Del Rey, and Redondo Beach. Trained educators are on board to point out wildlife not often seen.
“People don’t realize how much there is to see,” Alps said. “You don’t have to be a diver, you don’t have to get into the water.”
Trips are also mostly affordable, Alps said, ranging from $20 to $40 and lasting two to three hours. It all started in San Diego, but it was the late John Olguin of San Pedro who brought the idea north by arranging to take school children on fishing boats that weren’t active during the winters.
Since they began more than half a century ago, whale-watching boat tours have evolved and now have a broader reach, Alps said.
A whale-watching trip to Marina del Rey the other day, says Alps, spotted sea turtle. Sites also include sea lions, seabirds and dolphins.
“It’s definitely not just whale watching,” Alps said.
But whales still have the greatest star power and most trips will encounter at least one, she said, although there is no guarantee of a sighting every time.
Newer regulations also require boats to stay 100 meters away and avoid anything that disturbs or alters a whale’s behavior. This came after some concerns that the boats were sometimes getting too close to the animals and ‘harassing’ them.
But sometimes, according to Alps, whales end up approaching boats out of curiosity, especially if the ships are sailing slowly and quietly.
Among some concerns, Alps said, is an increasing number of whales stranded during recent migrations.
In 2019, the federal government declared an “unusual mortality event” for gray whales, opening a federal investigation into the strandings, Alps said.
A warm water mass that has been present in recent years could affect the food chain, she said, noting that many beached whales were emaciated.
“We hope it’s not going to be a big stranding year,” she said. “But often they come, it takes a bit of time for the ecosystem to get stronger again. We are all on high alert, waiting and hoping.
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