Good weather makes prime viewing for annual gray whale migration

Chelsey Killion of Atascadero is excited as the whale-watching boat Dos Osos pulls away from the Morro Bay Embarcadero. She has reason to be. She is about to witness one of nature’s most impressive feats of endurance, the annual migration of gray whales along the West Coast.

“I’ve always loved marine life,” she explains. “Why not take advantage of what’s in our backyard?”

Every year tens of thousands of gray whales pass through the waters off San Luis Obispo County on their way to and from summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea and the warm lagoons of Baja California where they give birth and mate.

A round trip of as much as 14,000 miles, it is considered the longest annual migration of any mammal. The spectacle begins in mid-December as the first pregnant females pass by on their way south. Then in March through April, the whales pass by on their way north, many of them mothers with their new calves.

This year has been a banner year for whale watching, particularly in Southern California. Observers there say they are seeing twice as many gray whales as normal. Wayne Perryman, director of the Cetacean Health and Life History Program with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in La Jolla, said the increased sightings do not represent an increase in the whale population. The agency estimated the population to be about 19,000 in 2012.

“We’ve just had unbelievably good whale watching conditions this year,” he said.

Weather conditions have been ideal and there have been few large swells, making spotting whales easier. Whale sightings north of Point Conception have been normal, Perryman said. South of Point Conception, the whales’ migration corridor broadens considerably to include the Channel Islands. For unknown reasons, the whales have opted to migrate closer to shore this year making them easier to spot, particularly along the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Perryman said.

Killion is one of eight passengers on the Dos Osos, operated by Sub Sea Tours and Kayaks of Morro Bay, as Capt. Kevin Winfield heads the boat for the harbor entrance. But before the boat leaves the harbor, Winfield takes it by a temporary dock that has been taken over by sea lions. About 30 of the large seals crowd the dock and bark at the boat.

The boat also cruises past a group of about a dozen sea otters resting just inside the harbor mouth. Several of them are mothers with pups riding on their bellies.

As the boat encounters the first swells of the open ocean, naturalist Teresa Whipple instructs everyone to scan the horizon for whale spouts — puffs of warm, moist air that billow eight to 10 feet in the air when a whale exhales. The boat is headed for what local whale watchers call the whale highway, a line between Point Estero to the north and Point Buchon to the south that is heavily used by migrating whales.

The highway is about five miles seaward of Morro Bay but the Dos Osos only gets about half way there before the first whales are sighted breaching to the north. Breaching is a spectacular display of a whale lunging out of the water and splashing back down. Winfield steers to intercept them and the boat spends the next several hours shadowing what turns out to be a small pod of three whales.

The trio displays typical migrating behavior as they pass by Morro Rock and the three towers of the Morro Bay power plant. They travel on the surface for a while, spouting about every 20 seconds.

“Thar she blows!” Winfield shouts exuberantly to a chorus of clicking camera shutters nearly every time a whale spouts.

Their backs, mottled with barnacles, are clearly visible. Then, flipping their tail flukes into the air, they dive and stay submerged for as much as five minutes before resurfacing.

Even when they are submerged, it is often easy to track the whales. Gray whales average 40 feet long and weigh 35 tons. The strokes of their tails are powerful enough to leave telltale glassy patches on the surface called footprints. Occasionally, one of the whales rears its head out of the water to look around, a behavior called a head bob. Gray whales also occasionally spy hop, which is thrusting most of their body vertically out of the water for a longer look around.

As the boat heads back to port, Whipple explains that gray whales are important not just because they perform an impressive migration each year. They are also a rare wildlife conservation success story. Like many marine mammals, they were nearly hunted to extinction by whalers in past centuries. Now protected, they have made a remarkable comeback. In 1994, they were removed from listing under the federal Endangered Species Act, one of only a handful of species to do so.

As the boat noses back into Morro Bay, Killion says she enjoyed seeing the whales. “They are magnificent and relaxing to watch.”

If you go

Several companies offer whale-watching tours including Patriot Sportfishing in Avila Beach at 595-7200 and Sub Sea Tours at 772-9463, Virg's Landing at 772-1222 and Morro Bay Landing at 771-5500, all in Morro Bay. Whale watching trips for gray whales are available seven days a week through April if enough passengers can be booked to justify a trip. Trip times vary from company to company but typically leave in the morning and cost about $40 for adults. Whale-watching tours for humpback whales are available from May through October.

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