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Natural La Jolla: Winter has arrived and wildlife is all around us!

Seen from behind, the blow from a gray whale appears heart-shaped because they have two blowholes on top of their heads, positioned close together in a V-shape.
Seen from behind, the blow from a gray whale appears heart-shaped because they have two blowholes on top of their heads, positioned close together in a V-shape.
Jeremy W. Smith

• NATURAL LA JOLLA:

The blustery 2015 New Year arrived last week, bringing with it chilly winter weather from the north and rough seas. Along with making personal resolutions for the coming year, we’ll again begin the cycle of seasonal changes in our natural world.

Kelly Stewart is a marine biologist with The Ocean Foundation, working with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. Her column about the flora and fauna of La Jolla appears regularly in La Jolla Light. She may be reached by e-mail: NaturalLaJolla@gmail.com
Kelly Stewart is a marine biologist with The Ocean Foundation, working with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. Her column about the flora and fauna of La Jolla appears regularly in La Jolla Light. She may be reached by e-mail: NaturalLaJolla@gmail.com

On the eve of the New Year, I walked down to the ocean to watch the sunset. As I stood waiting for the sun to slip away for the last time this year, a pod of gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) just offshore was making its way south.

The annual migration has now begun in earnest — I’ve been seeing whales regularly for a couple of weeks now. The late afternoon is the best time to spot blows or spouts from shore, as they are backlit by the sun. The moist warm air expelled forcefully from the blowhole will hang in the air for a few moments, looking like a puff of smoke.

A pod of gray whales at the surface travel together off the Southern California coast as they head south toward Mexico.
A pod of gray whales at the surface travel together off the Southern California coast as they head south toward Mexico.
Jeremy W. Smith

If you watch closely, you can count how many whales are traveling in the group — you’ll see one blow, then another, then another, too close in time to be the same whale. When at the surface, gray whales breathe from three to 10 times, each breath coming 15-30 seconds apart. They’ll then take a quick dive, maybe surfacing again in about 5 minutes, maybe a bit longer. You may be lucky enough to see a blow that is a shorter and smaller puff than the others — that’s a calf traveling with its mother — having been born before reaching the warm lagoons in Mexico.

Sanderlings forage in the surf zone, running as a group. There is one smaller sandpiper in the midst of the sanderlings.
Sanderlings forage in the surf zone, running as a group. There is one smaller sandpiper in the midst of the sanderlings.
Jeremy W. Smith

While you are scouting for a southbound gray, you might also see some tiny speckled birds foraging on the low beach. Sanderlings (Calidris alba) are one of our common over-wintering birds. They’re amusing to watch because their little legs work so quickly as they race up and down the surf zone, always staying just ahead of the waves.

Most afternoons, and especially when there are holidays, you’ll also find people down by the water. Many will have cameras, taking pictures of their friends or family, and almost all of them will be smiling as they watch the sunset. I see it happen nearly every day here, but it’s still amazing that so many people feel the instinct to move to the water’s edge to watch the sun slip into the sea.

As soon as it’s over, of course, there’s a mass migration of people back to their cars and away. But these winter sunsets can be spectacular, with deep orange and red hues. Add in some snow-capped mountains in the distance, and it’s well worth the trip.

Kelly Stewart is a marine biologist with The Ocean Foundation, working with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla. Her column about the floral and fauna of La Jolla appears second Thursdays in La Jolla Light. She may be reached at NaturalLaJolla@gmail.com

Winter sunsets can be very pretty, with cool sunlight and deep rich orange and red hues.
Winter sunsets can be very pretty, with cool sunlight and deep rich orange and red hues.
Jeremy W. Smith