'A wonderful gig': Piedras Blancas whale researcher retires after 27 years with NOAA
Wayne Perryman will stand his last watch over Point Piedras Blancas on Friday after nearly a quarter century leading the annual springtime tally of gray whales swimming north on their annual migration.
Perryman has been working part time most recently in preparation for his Oct. 1 retirement from marine-related occupations that span almost 47 years — 20 with the U.S. Navy and 27 with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He founded NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Service’s Cetacean Health and Life History Program in 1986 and has given gray whale lectures many times on the North Coast.
He may be retiring, but his program will live on.
“Wayne’s achievement in leading the count of gray whale females and calves for 25 years is outstanding, and the time series of counts is incredibly important for understanding changes in reproductive success in the gray whale population,” his successor, John Durban, said Tuesday. “…. It is a very important long-term study, and we hope and plan to carry on in Wayne’s footsteps.”
Perryman and his counting crew launched the Piedras tally of grays in 1994.
Since then, Perryman figures he and his crew have tallied thousands of gray whale pairs swimming past the point toward their Alaskan feeding grounds.
Full-season counts taken during daytime hours each spring at Piedras have ranged from 86 to 501. The subsequent, all-important seasonal estimates, which include nighttime calculations, are based on previous thermal-sensor evidence that the migration continues at approximately the same rate day or night.
The tally not only counts the whales, it also studies the health of some pairs, with scientists observing the robustness of the cetaceans, gathering such estimated statistics as length and width.
Grays make one of the longest annual mammal migrations in the world twice each year. They swim around the clock at about 3 mph for up to 5,000 miles one way, migrating between their northern feeding grounds and the area Perryman calls “the whale’s Club Med” in Baja. It’s there, in the south, where they give birth and breed.
Taking to the sky
For the past four March-through-May counts, Perryman’s crew has deployed a more modern tactic with the use of drones flying over the ocean to safely collect data and photograph whales from the air.
Weather permitting, the videos and still photos captured by the hexacopter drone can be astonishing in their detail. It's Perryman's innovative use of drones that, in part, factored into an honor he'll be receiving in Washington D.C. just weeks after his retirement. The Department of Commerce’s bronze medal, he said, is the highest award the department’s deputy director can give.
On Monday, Jacob Barbaro and Hollis English, part of NOAA's first team of officer aviators for unmanned aircraft, were operating an APH22, a custom-made drone that includes a mirrorless Olympus camera, gimbal and an altimeter.
It was a coordinated effort as team members spotted whales, launched the drone, navigated to the correct location for data collection and then safely flew it back for a clean landing.
It’s pretty sweet duty: The site is spectacular, the air was warm, sunshine bright and breezes were gentle. Pelicans and other birds soared over the cove.
The data’s importance
Perryman said the team had counted 186 cow-calf pairs through Sunday in this year’s count.
“In an average year, that would be about 220 pairs,” he said.
He estimates that this year’s tally will be “down a bit from the last several years” of high-end counts.
Perryman considers the scope of the team’s gray-whale studies to be “a unique time series on reproductive output for a large whale,” he said.
Even more crucial, he said, the data was collected at a time when the impacts of climate change were accelerating, especially in the Arctic.
“What makes it most intriguing is that gray whales are Arctic whales, and that environment is changing faster than any other place in the world due to global warming," he said. "So by tracking condition and reproduction of these whales, we get a window into what is happening in the Arctic without the expense and risks associated with Arctic science."
Perryman said some aspects of retiring can be daunting.
During his final week at Piedras before returning to his department's headquarters in La Jolla, he said he's felt “a little like the last pick of the NFL draft … Mr. Irrelevant,” a comment that drew laughs and rebuttals from the people around him.
He’ll miss many things about “this effort, the people and this place,” he said at Piedras.
The Bureau of Land Management owns the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse and allows the scientists to live in one of the on-site houses and set up their tracking areas on the point.
“To be able to live out here for a few months every year, with a 200-yard commute to work is really special,” he added.
Perryman also will miss his job’s unique opportunities.
One of the most amazing sightings he's had was of a rare North Pacific right whale. “There are probably only 25 or 30 of them left,” he said, adding that he’ll miss most watching all the giant behemoths that swim almost straight toward the point before veering further back out to sea.
He said he’ll also miss “the challenge of trying to understand these animals and what conditions are necessary for them to thrive.”
And of course, he’ll miss his co-workers.
Perryman hopes to continue visiting the North Coast, but now as a tourist.
After he retires, he wants to get a “Welsh terrier puppy, and for a while I will be a stay-at-home dad.”
He and wife, Penelope, also plan to travel, but those journeys probably won’t be as far reaching as his career treks have been — from the Artic to Antarctic to the Gulf of Mexico, to such tropical countries as Peru and Tahiti and back to the glorious, windswept promontory about 17 miles north of Cambria, Point Piedras Blancas.
By the numbers
The number of gray whales counted by Perryman’s team of scientists at Piedras Blancas in springtime studies from 1994 through 2008: