ACS/LA GRAY WHALE CENSUS AND
BEHAVIOR PROJECT: 2011-2012
Census Project Director: Alisa Schulman-Janiger
For more information about daily sightings, visit: www.acs-la.org
Gray whale counts skyrocketed this season, reaching several record highs - including December southbound counts, May northbound counts, and northbound calf counts - during the 2011/2012 ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project. This is the 32nd year (29th consecutive season) that the American Cetacean Society's Los Angeles Chapter has sponsored a gray whale census project from the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Our cliffside post is on the patio of the Point Vicente Interpretive Center (PVIC), 125 feet above kelp beds and rocky shoreline, with a seafloor that drops off abruptly nearshore. Trained volunteers collect data on gray whales and other cetaceans (identifications, counts, and behaviors). All participants use binoculars; several use spotting scopes to confirm and detail sightings. Weather data (visibility and sea conditions) is recorded at least twice hourly.
COVERAGE: Our census station operated for 2049 hours over the 172 days between 1 December 2011 and 20 May 2012 (averaging nearly 12 hours/day); we extended our season from May 15 to May 20 to cover the tail end of this protracted migration. The 91 volunteers contributed 10,660 effort hours. The 14 core volunteers that donated over 200 hours each, totaling over 39% of our effort hours (and the number of volunteered days) include: Joyce Daniels (155), Sheila Parker (98), Bob Jensen (97), Gerrie Teague (97), Natalie Massey (95), Carol Fritts (85), Libby Helms (73), Steve Gardner (73), Kate McKenna (73), (Tony Carrillo (72), April Ryan (70), Nancy DeLong (50), Cynthia Woo (44), and Kris De-Roo (23). Twenty-seven additional volunteers donated at least 100 hours each (totaling over 33% of our effort hours). Experienced observers anchor all shifts.
GRAY WHALE COUNTS ROSE: We spotted 672 southbound and 1133 northbound gray whales (447 southbound and 710 northbound gray whales last season). Whale counts have fluctuated hugely over 28 previous seasons: southbound numbers varied from 301-1291, and northbound counts varied from 521-3412. Although most of the estimated 20,000 gray whales migrate past California, we spot only a small proportion. Gray whales – especially adults – off Palos Verdes tend to travel further offshore, notably during the southbound migration. Northbound whales – particularly cow/calf pairs – tend to hug the coastline. These trends, combined with extended springtime observation hours, produce higher northbound counts. Shifting migratory corridors and weather conditions result in annually fluctuating shore-based counts. The number of whales that complete the migration varies, and feeding ground conditions (especially ice coverage) affect migratory timing and corridors. Poor visibility drastically affects counts; fog compromised visibility to some extent on MANY more days during this season (62) than last season (27).
PEAKS AND TURN-AROUND DATES: The southbound migration started earlier with more whales, resulting in record high December counts - and dropped off earlier than usual. The peak southbound count was on 26 December (27 whales); previous peak counts ranged from 15-98. We spotted 117 southbound whales during the peak southbound week of 21 December-27 December (123 last season). The northbound started very early, dropped off abruptly, then picked up and ran much later - creating an unusual overlap between migrations (with substantial numbers of grays passing in each direction) and a record May count. The official turn-around date (when daily northbound whales exceed southbound whales) was on 13 February. We spotted 42 northbound whales during the “southbound migration”, and 40 southbound whales during the “northbound migration”. Our peak northbound count was 50 on 19 March; previous peaks ranged from 20-152. We recorded 152 gray whales during the peak northbound (main migration pulse) week of 18 March - 24 March. We recorded 171 gray whales during the peak northbound (cow/calf migration pulse) week of 25 April - 1 May. The northbound cow/calf pulse generally peaks 5-6 weeks later that the main pulse, calves can nurse longer and strengthen swimming skills in Baja lagoons before initiating their perilous migration northward.
CALF COUNTS ROSE - RECORD HIGH NORTHBOUND CALF COUNTS! We spotted 21 newborn southbound calves (3.1% of southbound migrants) from 26 December-12 February. (Last season we saw 26 newborn calves: 5.8% of the southbound migrants). This is our lowest newborn calf percentage since 2000-2001; the record high count occurred during the 1997-98 season (106 calves, 8.6% of southbound migrants). Previous southbound calf counts ranged from 3-60 (0.5%-8.9% of southbound migrants). We counted 260 northbound calves (22.9% of northbound migrants) from 11 March - 18 May, peaking with 20 calves on 1 May (an extremely high tally). This is our highest northbound calf percentage; cows and calves comprised 45.9% of the northbound migration! (Last season we counted 110 northbound calves: 15.5% of northbound migrants). Besides the record of 222 calves in 1996-97 (13.8% of northbound migrants), previous calf counts have ranged from 11-196 (0.9%-18.5% of northbound migrants). There were possible sightings of 1 additional southbound calf and 5 additional northbound calves.
BEHAVIORS AND HUMAN INTERACTIONS: We saw gray whales mill, roll, lunge, breach, spyhop (more than ever - especially with calves), bubble blast, mate, and nurse calves – we even saw milk in the water! Several calves played in the kelp, rolled on their moms, or rode on their moms’ backs. We saw probable feeding with several juveniles, who bobbed up and down and swam with open mouth at the surface. We also saw some pods separate or merge. On seven days we witnessed near-collisions as boats including a lifeguard boat closely approached whales; several private boats actively harassed whales. These whales clearly reacted: a few changed direction and headed offshore, some dove longer, others switched to low profile behavior. We had been alerted about a well-publicized entangled whale, spotted marker buoys early on 29 March, and called authorities who scrambled a trained rescue team that successfully disentangled this whale as we watched!
HIGHER COUNTS: Our higher gray whale counts (including record northbound December, May, and northbound calf counts) reflected trends reported by other coastal census stations such as that run by NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service), who conducts the official gray whale census (and Gray Whales Count in Goleta). NMFS estimated the gray whale population at 29,758 in 1998 (a 35 year high), 18,178 in 2002 (following a major mortality event), and 20,110 in 2007. Key indicators of a healthy population are higher adult and calf counts; these factored into the NMFS’s decision to recommend the removal of gray whales from the endangered species list in 1994. Fluctuations in wild populations, the number of whales that complete the migration, weather conditions, and observer experience affect whale counts. Feeding ground conditions affect migratory timing and paths. The gray whale population dropped with a major mortality event (1999 and 2000), followed by three seasons of low calf production. Over the past several years, Arctic warming has led to a northward shift in distribution of gray whale prey (mud-dwelling shrimp-like amphipods): they thrive in cooler water, feeding on algae that fall from ice sheets. Gray whales also shifted northward (following prey distribution); strandings decreased and calf production increased. However, this can delay migration: they might ignore the initial migration cue (shortened daylight hours) so that they can rebuild blubber that allows them to fast during migration and on Baja nursery grounds, and provides energy to withstand disease, storms, and killer whale attacks. Gray whale census spotters were amazed by the huge increase in calf counts, which (like last season) continue to reverse the past trend of lower counts. Wayne Perryman (NMFS gray whale census scientist, ice specialist) agreed that this was a big calf year: ~1000 gray whale calves. http://www.adn.com/2012/08/02/2569366/gray-whale-baby-boom-is-noted.html
OTHER SPECIES SIGHTED: We spotted 13 other marine mammal species. Comparing this season (to last season), we saw common dolphin on 156 days (150), bottlenose dolphin on 143 days (136), fin whales on 112 days (35), Pacific white-sided dolphin on 41 days (31), minke whales on 24-27 days (7-12), Risso’s dolphin on 21 days (37), KILLER WHALES* on 10 days (1), blue whales on 8 days (12), humpback whales on 5 days (5-7), unidentified whales on 11 days (16), California sea lions on 165 days (154), harbor seals on 95 days (85), California sea otters on 6 days (0), and a northern elephant seal on 1 day (0).
* KILLER WHALE SIGHTINGS: Record number of sightings, all TRANSIENTS (mammal-eaters), all individually identified!
* GRAY WHALE CALF ATTACK: On 9 May, 10 killer whales (CA51s, CA27s) attacked, killed, and fed on a gray whale calf
right in front of us: this is the first time we have documented this event!
* You can contribute to our California Killer Whale Project: send photos/sighting data to: email@example.com. (I will try to match
images to our catalog, and notify you with the results).
SPECIES SIGHTED IN PREVIOUS YEARS: sperm whale, false killer whale, pilot whale, northern right whale dolphin, Dall’s porpoise, and beaked whales.
GRAY WHALE INTERACTIONS: gray whales interacted with other marine mammals including sea lions, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, and Pacific white-sided dolphin. We occasionally saw mixed species groupings (dolphins and sea lions).
MISCELLANEOUS: A peregrine falcon was spotted on two days - a species recovering from DDT contamination.
OBSERVERS' HOURS: (*new observers): Afternoon anchor Joyce Daniels - also updated graphs (681), Bob Jensen (415), Gerrie Teague (388), Libby Helms (346), Tony Carrillo (302), Sheila Parker* (301), Cynthia Woo (283), Carol Fritts (273), April Ryan (257), Natalie Massey - also summarized guest book entries (251), Kris De-Roo (251), Kate McKenna* (231), Nancy DeLong (222), Steve Gardner (220), Gordon Gates (190), Corine Sutherland (188), Richard Scholtz* (185), Deborah Wulinger (183), Jo Bonds (167), JoLinda Garnier (166), Pam Ryono (148), Alisa Schulman-Janiger - Census Project Director/Coordinator (143), Bette Williams* (143), Amy Heintz (141), Dee Whitehurst (137), Barbara Stone (132), Tina Hoff (125), Betty Larson* (124), Jan Malone (121), Cathy Ragland (120), Stephanie Brito (115), Carol Tokushige* (115), Wes Tokushige* (115), Linda Jebo (107), Stephanie Bryan (106), Denise Donegan (105), Cathy Landrum (104), Dee Liter (103), Ann Gardner (103), Terry Hayes (102), Kim Watson (101), Larry Howe (95), Dave Zahniser* (91), Tammy Da Costa Gomez* (89), John Norris* (88), Carl Gadow* (86), Robin Riggs (85), Karin Campbell (83), Robin Riggs – Colorado (82), Suzan Carne (81), Bill Hatcher* (81), Joyce Jessoe (81), Robin Perrtree* (80), Glenda Shirer (79), Lisa Margolis (72), Jean Rodgers (72), Andy Veek (72), Michael White (67), Dave Morse (65), Richard Kawasaki (64), Pat Harpole (64), Pat Ashenfelter* (60), Carol Harrison 58), Ken Ragland (55), Amber Fandel* (54), John Nieto (54), M’Liz Callender* (51), Mario Moreno (48), Erlinda Cortez (46), Havilah Abrego* (45), Mike Malone (45), Alan Koch* (43), Gloria Koch* (43), Brent Young* (43), Skip Eastman* (42), Leslie Brucker (42), Donna McLaughlin (40), Norma Lira (37), Fran Austin - Colorado (32), Dinah Garcia (32), Andy Shen* (30), Norman Thorne* (28), Andrew Varenhorst (22), Christy Varni (22), Carl Mayhugh* (18), Kris Clifford (17), Mike Brucker (17), Hugh Ryono (16), Laura Marcella* (16), Evi Meyer (15), and Manuel Ramos (12).
GUESTBOOK LOG: 1692 visitors signed in: 478 from USA (47 states, primarily Washington), 214 from 31 other countries (primarily Canada).
COMPUTER ENTRIES: We especially thank Dave Janiger for computer entries.
JOIN US! Contact Alisa Schulman-Janiger at:firstname.lastname@example.org. No experience necessary: on-site training in November and December. Highly recommended: attend the Whalewatch Training Class at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium (CMA) [(310) 548-7563; www.cabrilloaq.org], co-sponsored by CMA and ACS/LA (www.acs-la.org). On Tuesday nights, October-March, volunteers are trained to become Whalewatch boat guides and classroom lecturers. ACS/LA offers free lectures from invited specialists the last Tuesday of each month at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, and all day whalewatching trips: gray whales off Santa Catalina Island in March; humpback and blue whales in the Santa Barbara Channel - summertime (www.acs-la.org).
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