The largest mammal migration in the world can be seen right off the coast of La Jolla during the early months of every year as the Pacific gray whales make their journey from the Arctic Ocean to the warm waters of Baja California, Mexico.
They begin their 10 to 12 week migration from the northern Arctic waters in October and swim past La Jolla around January before finishing the journey in the warm lagoons of Baja. It is here the babies are born and allowed a few weeks to grow before making the trek north again in February and March in order to arrive home in the Arctic in June, according to Staci Shaut, who is the whale watching coordinator for Birch Aquarium at Scripps. First to start the migration are the pregnant female whales who must reach the warm waters in order to give birth. Later the males and juveniles whales follow.
“Right now we are seeing a mix of everybody as they make their way to the lagoon,” said Shaut.
La Jollans are lucky to be so close to this population of gray whales, which numbers approximately 20,000 individuals and is the largest gray whale population in the world. The only other two populations of the species, include a group of which lived off the eastern coast of the United States, was made extinct about twenty years ago, while the other, lives in the Pacific waters near Japan and has 200 to300 individuals. The group that swims past La Jolla every winter has also come close to being extinct in the past, once around 1850 and again in the early 20th century due to advances in technology in whale hunting. In 1972, the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act was enacted, which was a commercial ban on the harvest of gray whales.
“We have a very solid population right now,” said Shaut. “We like to call them a conservation success story.”
Shaut said adult whales typically grow up to 45 feet in length. They are a mottled gray color due to the barnacles and lice that live off of their skin, which does not hurt the whales.
They usually stay within a mile or two of the coast during their migration, which allows humans to have the rare opportunity to see these creatures for themselves. Scripps Aquarium offers several whale watching excursions, ranging from day tours that are a few hours long to six-day trips down to Baja, Mexico. The day tours last for about three hours and are offered from late December to late March. Tours are led by naturalists from Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who share their knowledge of the behavior of gray whales and point out sightings to visitors. For those who desire a longer adventure, the Aquarium also offers trips down to Baja, Mexico lasting either three, five or six days.
The whales surface every 35 minutes for air, “like clockwork,” said Shaut. They typically travel alone or in small groups of two or three, and it is very rare to see large groups of whales. The boats are not allowed to approach the whales because of the protective acts, but sometimes a whale will get close to the boats on their own.
“They don’t seem to mind us,” said Shaut.
And in Baja, the whales seem particularly friendly toward their human observers. “In the lagoons we see very friendly behavior,” said Shaut, likely because the whales are relaxed as the juveniles are allowed time to grow and play before heading back up north toward the Arctic Ocean. Sometimes a whale will even stick its head out of the water, which is known as “spy hopping,” and allow a human to pet them on the head.
The number of whales one is likely to see on a tour can vary, Shaut said. On a typical day tour, as few as zero or as many as five whales can be seen.
“They are wild animals, and you don’t know how many you are going to see or how many are going to show up,” she said.
As for how people react when they see the whales, Shaut said, “They are very excited, especially if it is the first time they have seen it,” said Shaut. “Whether you’ve seen one whale or a hundred whales, it’s always exciting.”
For more information on whale watching tours, call Birch Aquarium at (858) 534-7336 or visit www.aquarium.ucsd.edu.