“The OC knows Gray Whales, what a breathtaking event to witness”

A gray whale breaches two miles off-shore from Capistrano Beach earlier this week.

DANA POINT – All of a sudden, the whale came straight out of the water.

Tom White didn’t know it would happen when he first spotted the gray whale in 100 feet of water just off Salt Creek Beach. He had charted its course and watched its breathing patterns. There were two breaths, then on the third breath, the whale went down for a deep dive.

“I knew when he breached, he’d probably do it again,” said White, a 33-year-whale-watch captain who was driving Dana Pride on Monday. “He came up straight and then fell over and landed on his side. People were screaming.”

White told everyone to get ready. From decades of experience, the San Clemente resident knew there was a good chance the whale would launch itself out of the water again. It did – two more times.

In the past couple of days, it’s been a bonanza along the Southern California coastline. Whale-watch captains near Dana Point Harbor report multiple gray whales jumping out of the water off Capistrano Beach and off the Dana Point Headlands. In Newport Beach, there have been sightings just outside of the harbor. In Long Beach, boat captains have had near daily displays near Point Fermin. And off Point Vicente near Ranchos Palos Verdes citizen scientists working with the ACSLA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project are getting an eyeful, too.

Experts don’t know why gray whales – as heavy as 35 tons – hurl themselves out of the water. Some say it’s because they’re navigating the coast line and trying to get a good look of where they are. Or they’re showing off to attract other whales. Some say they could be communicating by sound as their gross tonnage hits the water. Or they might be using the water as a power wash to rid themselves of parasites and barnacles. Some whale biologists have seen whales breach because of entanglements.

“Everyone wants to know why but no one really knows,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a marine biologist and director of ACSLA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project. Schulman-Janiger once witnessed a whale breach 18 times in a row at the mouth of the Port of Los Angeles.

“Typically, you see a whale come up for a breath and go down,” said Schulman-Janiger. “Maybe you’ll see one raise its tail. The only thing we get to see is what they do out of the water. It’s exciting for us to see because we live in an air world. It’s unexpected because they have to leave their world and come into ours.” Source: OC Register

Schulman-Janiger said it’s the unexpected and suddenness of the whale hurtling out of the water that makes it such an incredible spectacle. But she is quick to point out that while there have been nearly daily reports of breaching from local whale-watch companies, there is no guarantee that a whale will breach on any given day or location.

“Because of the ‘marine park’ mentality, people will say ,’we got a good show,’” she said. “They are not performing for us. They are living their life and we’re lucky to witness it. There are all kinds of behavior they do under water that we can’t see.”

Earlier this month Schulman-Janiger tracked a record-high number of gray whales migrating south from their feeding grounds in Alaska to the mating grounds in Baja. She has kept records of the gray whale migration for 31 years with the help of volunteers. These citizen scientists watch for whales passing the Point Vicente Interpretative Center in Ranchos Palos Verdes from sunrise to sunset daily from Dec. 1 to May 20.

Over the weekend too, volunteers at the Rancho Palos Verdes site watched four whales breach on Saturday at Point Vicente. They’re also seeing a higher number of whales fluking.

With the record counts come record sightings and record fun.

“I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve been a boat captain 25 years and this year I told my crew the whales look happy,” said Dan Salas, who operates Harbor Beach Cruises out of Long Beach. He’s seen whales breach at Point Fermin just north of Long Beach almost daily.

“In years past, they looked skinny. This year they look plump. It’s a good time for them.”

Salas has another hunch. He points to recent shipping lane changes near the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the Santa Barbara Channel and San Francisco Bay. Hundreds of freighters and commercial ships heading to these ports now must pass along new, altered routes through the Channel Islands as a first step to avoid whale strikes. The modified lane changes were put in place on June 1 by the International Maritime Organization.

“We’re seeing more whales than ever in 30 years,” he said. “Just so happens that this is all happening since they made the lane changes,” he added.

Dave Anderson, who operates Capt. Dave’s Dolphin Safari and Whale Watch in Dana Point, agrees this gray whale season is “better than ever.”

“There are flat, calm seas and it’s sunny and warm we’re seeing two to three times more whales than a normal season nearly every day,” Anderson said. “We’re also seeing huge mega pods of dolphins. It’s like a perfect storm of all things coming together.” source oc register