Capt. Frank Brennan had taken a boat full of elementary school children out on the water near Dana Point Harbor when they spotted an incredible sight: a baby gray whale calf and its mother, swimming in the water.
“They were really, really excited,” Brennan said Tuesday in a phone interview with The Tribune. “You read about stuff and you see it on TV, in pictures and books, but it’s different when you actually see it.”
Brennan, who works for Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching, took the children, from Mission Hills Elementary School in Escondido, out on the boat Jan. 11 to go whale watching off the Orange County coast.
As Brennan steered the boat out of Dana Point Harbor, the group saw one whale — but about four or five boats were around it.
“I don’t like to crowd whales,” he said. So Brennan left and then spotted another whale about a half-mile away. He didn’t know at first that there was a calf in the water as well.
Then he took the drone out.
“It’s always nice to show the kids something like that,” Brennan said.
He said most gray whales like to swim in 50 to 150 feet of water, and he estimated that the mother and baby were in about 70 feet of water.
Brennan said his group watched the whales for about a half hour.
“You can witness in this video, the baby drafting off the mom, also called using the slipstream,” Donna Kalez, manager of Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching, told The Tribune in an email.
The slipstream means “the water around the mom is moving at the same speed as the mom, so the calf virtually gets a ‘free ride,’ ” Kalez wrote, quoting Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director of the Gray Whale Census & Behavior Project.
Schulman-Janiger studied the whales in the video and said she believes the calf is about one to two weeks old, Kalez said.
“She can tell this by how the calf is swimming and taking breaths,” Kalez said. “(The calf is) very small, about 15 feet long.”
Spotting a baby whale heading south with its mother along the Southern California coast isn’t unusual, but Brennan likened it to “a baby born in a taxi on the way to the hospital,” since gray whales try not to give birth until later in their migration.
Gray whales migrate to lagoons in Baja California, Mexico, during the winter, where they mate and give birth. Then they travel back up to their feeding grounds in the Arctic for the summer.
As of Jan. 14, the Gray Whale Census had counted 119 whales traveling southbound and 4 traveling northbound since Dec. 1, according to a Facebook update on the census from the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society.