May 18, 2016

The Gray Whale Counters of Santa Barbara

“California Gray Whales make the longest migration of any mammal traveling 10,000 to 14,000 miles round trip annually.”

There are few creatures on Earth that are more magnificent and graceful as the oceans’ whales. As residents of Southern California, we are fortunate to be able to witness these majestic nomads as they travel up and down our coastline throughout the seasons. Blue, Humpback, Right, Minke, Orca, and California Gray Whales migrate along our beautiful beaches allowing eager observers a chance to gaze at the largest animals to ever live on Earth. Our sheltered channel is an ideal location for these gentle giants to avoid the stronger currents in the outer waters while continuing their migrations to the North or South. The California Gray Whale is the most popular, and most visible, of these cetaceans and can be witnessed during migrations at just about any beach in Santa Barbara. During their Northbound migration from early February to mid May, the Grays pass through Santa Barbara where enthusiastic volunteers perched atop the bluff at Coil Oil Point make an accurate count of the whales. These “Gray Whale counters” provide essential data to other collaborative sampling studies along the migration route.

Photos courtesy Michael H. Smith

gray whales santa barbara
A Pair of mature Gray Whales surface and dive off the coast of Santa Barbara to the delight of whale watchers and “counters.

The California Gray Whale

Historically, three populations of Gray Whales once existed: A North Atlantic population, a Korean or Western North Pacific population, and an Eastern North Pacific population. The North Atlantic population is now extinct due to over hunting in the 1800’s through the early 1900’s. The Western North pacific population is extremely depleted due to over-hunting from Japan and Russia and is on the brink of extinction. The Eastern North Pacific population is the largest surviving group. These Eastern North Pacific Grays are commonly called California Gray Whales. Thanks to the efforts of conservationists over several decades, the California Gray Whale has made a remarkable recovery from near extinction in the early 1900’s, to a population of 19,000 to 23,000 today.

Measuring up to 48 feet and weighing in at a staggering 30-40 tons, these leviathans feed on tiny crustaceans and tube worms found in bottom sediment. They are baleen whales, which means they have a series of overlapping plates where teeth would be located. These plates are made of fingernail-like material (keratin) that fray out into fine hairs at the end, near the tongue. The whales feed by diving to the bottom where they turn on their sides and draw water and bottom sediments into their mouths. As the whale closes its mouth, water and sediments are filtered through the baleen plates. These plates trap the food on the inside of the mouth near the tongue where it is then swallowed.

After five to eleven years Gray Whales reach sexual maturity where, after mating, they go through a twelve to thirteen month gestation period. Calves weigh 1100-1500 pounds and are about fifteen feet at birth! Females bear a single calf that will nurse for seven to eight months on milk that is 53% fat (human milk is 2% fat). The calf gains up to 60 pounds a day! Mother whales can live to be more than 45 years old and produce dozens of offspring.

Gray Whales have a predictable breathing pattern while migrating. They usually surface to breathe three to five times in 15-30 second intervals before raising their fluke and submerging for three to five minutes. They can stay submerged for up to fifteen minutes and can swim at three to six miles per hour.

santa barbara gray whale migration

The Migration

California Gray Whales make the longest migration of any mammal traveling 10,000 to 14,000 miles round trip annually. This journey takes them from the cold arctic waters of the Bering Sea, all the way to the warm lagoons in Baja California, Mexico, and back again in one year. The Grays swim 24 hours a day throughout their journeys North and South.

As spring arrives in early February, the Grays begin to leave their winter breeding grounds in the warm, shallow lagoons of Southern Baja California and head north to their cold summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea off of Alaska. The whales do not eat while mating and breeding in Baja, and there is little food on the journey southward and northward. A 30 ton whale may burn up to 8 tons of blubber during the two migrations and the winter breeding months. After several months of living off of blubber, their urgent hunger drives them northward. Hungry older whales start the journey first, followed by mothers and newborn calves. The mothers stay in the lagoons until May to allow their offspring to build reserves of blubber before making the long journey northward.

The whales swim close to the shore along the trek to the north. This allows people that live near the coast to observe and monitor the whales, and for a thriving whale watching industry to exist along the migration route. After more than 50 days of non-stop swimming through shark and Orca infested waters, the Gray Whales have reached their northern destination – the nutrient-rich Arctic waters of the Bering Sea. Over the next five months, the whales will feast in order to gain back the 16-30 percent of their total body weight they lost on their migration. They can eat up to 2,400 pounds of food in one day!

By September, the days grow shorter and the waters in the Arctic north begin to produce less food for the whales. This triggers the whales to make the journey back to the south and continue the cycle all over again. They feed until the last moment, gaining as much weight as they can to sustain them throughout their journey.

Counting Gray whales in Santa Barbara
The Gray Whales Count non-profit organization has used their bluff top perch above Coal Oil Point to observe the migrating whales for the last six years. This location places “the counters” in an ideal position as the whales approach from the south to meet observers head on.

The Count

While venturing out to the tip of Coal Oil Point (Devereaux Point) in Goleta during spring, you may have noticed a group of people with binoculars starring out to the sea. These people are volunteers for The Gray Whales Count and are an essential component in calculating the population of migrating Grays. The goals of “The Count” are simple – to estimate the number of Gray Whales and Gray Whale calves migrating northbound through our corridor, and to share the data to compliment similar sampling studies along the California Coast. Starting in early February, the counters work in teams of two to five from 9am to 5pm for 105 consecutive days. The data accrued during the sampling of the whales is shared with other counting groups along the migration route in hopes of obtaining a clear indication of population trends. “There are a lot of qualifiers to what we do,” explains Michael H. Smith, project coordinator of The Gray Whales Count, a non-profit organization. “First, the whole population does not pass by the point. And, even if it did, we can only survey 8 hours a day when weather permits. That leaves two-thirds of the day that goes by with no one counting whales. So, we are sampling. All of the Gray Whale surveys are samples. The more samples we take, the better we can evaluate the data. We are not attempting to monitor and evaluate the population as a whole. Rather, we are beginning to get a handle on the animals that use this corridor. And, if we share our work, all of the pieces together can indicate population trends.”

surfers and whales
A Gray Whale calf surfaces between two surfers at Coal Oil Point Natural Preserve

Collaboration is the basis of all the Gray Whale surveys and The Gray Whales Count is no different. Although The Count is an independent, non-profit organization, it began as a research project for the American Cetacean Society – Channel Islands in 2004, and still maintains a close affiliation with ACS-CI. Of course, the location of the survey being at Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve requires a close relationship with UCSB and its’ Marine Science Institute, which administers the UC Reserve. The Gray Whales Count is also consulted by the Cascadia Research Collective, which has led to collaboration with the Scripps Whale Acoustic Lab. Each day during The Count, the raw data is sent to Journey North, which gathers the data and compiles bi-weekly reports on migration for their website and for distribution to classrooms across the country. In addition, mathematics students at California State University Channel Islands, with input from NOAA scientists at Southwest Fisheries, are formulating methods to analyze the raw data. Each day, sea captains from local whale watching boats, like the Condor Express, share much needed information with the counters from beyond their field of sight. “We figure that Gray Whales are not alone out there, and so it makes sense for us to bring as many minds and bodies together to discuss, plan, and prepare what we do,” claims Smith.

The counting site itself could not be a better location. With a 200 degree field of view, Coal Oil Point has a bluff-top vantage point that allows counters to view the whales head on as they approach from the south, sometimes passing just outside the surf. “Four survey sites operate between Monterey and Los Angeles for the reason that the whales swim close enough to shore that they can be seen by surveyors on the land,” says Smith, “and, for the most part, the weather here is mild enough during winter and spring to conduct a survey. We are lucky to be adjacent to a wonderful university with caring, conscientious students, and we especially enjoy the beautiful environment of Coal Oil Point Natural Preserve.”

Continuing efforts from volunteers and non-profit organizations like The Gray Whales Count are essential for enlightening the public about our natural world. These counters are defacto educators to our community, enthusiastically sharing their information with any passerby, friend, or family member. “Each year we gather about 80 volunteers, some who have been with us since the beginning,” admits Smith. “But each year we need new counters and are extremely grateful for their generous commitment to this work!” If you are interested in volunteering for The Gray Whales Count, log on to www.graywhalescount.org and click on “want to count”. If you cannot find the time to assist in the counting process, you can stay involved by checking the website regularly to follow the progress of the count, and to read the comments that are updated daily. And of course, they are very appreciative of any tax-deductible donations they receive.

So, next time you see a plume of spray from the spout of a Gray Whale, remember their epic journey along our coast and the hardships they must undergo to complete it each year. But more importantly, be thankful that conservationists and volunteer organizations have worked so hard to protect the whales’ future.

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