ACS/LA GRAY WHALE CENSUS AND BEHAVIOR PROJECT: 2015-2016: HIGHLIGHTS

Census Project Director/Coordinator: Alisa Schulman-Janiger

Email: janiger@cox.net

   For a more detailed version of this report, and for information about daily sightings, visit: www.acs-la.org

 

A southbound gray whale gave birth, northbound gray whale counts were way up, record northbound calf count, record humpback whale sightings, and rare looks at false killer whales highlighted our 2015/2016 ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project. This is the 33rd consecutive season that the American Cetacean Society's Los Angeles Chapter has sponsored a full season 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, including identifications, counts, and behaviors. All participants use binoculars; several use spotting scopes to confirm/detail sightings. Weather data (visibility, weather conditions, and sea conditions) is recorded twice hourly.

 

COVERAGE:

      1 December 2015 - 31 May 2016

       2,213 hours over 183 days, averaging over 12 hours/day

       98 volunteers contributed 9,296 effort hours; many have been with us for over 10 years

         Experienced observers anchor all shifts (observer experience affects whale counts)

         Fourteen core volunteers donated over 200 hours each (totaling over 51% of our effort hours)

         Twenty-one other volunteers donated 100-199 hours each (totaling nearly 29% of our effort hours)

 

GRAY WHALE COUNTS:

     Northbound counts rose (fourth highest); southbound counts were our second highest (next to last season)

         1,430 southbound (1,902 last season); southbound range: 301-1,902 (1,301 previous high count)

         2,541 northbound (2,141 last season); northbound range: 521-3,412

           Gray whale counts fluctuate annually

               Variable feeding ground conditions (especially ice coverage) affect migratory timing and corridors

               A few more foggy days this season, especially in January (visibility impacts counts)

               Locally, most southbound grays prefer offshore corridors; many northbound whales shift nearshore

               Wild populations fluctuate annually, as do the number of whales that complete the migration

                   NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) estimated the gray whale population at ~21,000 (2012)

                   Gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994

 

PEAKS AND TURN-AROUND DATES:

    SOUTHBOUND: migration started early (fifth year in a row), with high sustained numbers

         Peak southbound dates: 57 on 26 January; 55 on 6 February. (Peak range: 15-98)

         Peak southbound week:  226 SB grays between 24-30 January (259 last season, same week)

    TURN-AROUND (northbound exceeds southbound)

          First date that northbound exceeded southbound: 17 February

          Official turn-around date: 17 February (daily northbound whales exceeded southbound whales)

          No gap between migration phases; rare extended overlap (like last season)

               We spotted 105 northbound whales during the “southbound migration” phase

               We spotted 81 southbound whales during the “northbound migration” phase

    NORTHBOUND: steady migration, very high peak days, ran later than usual (again)

           Peak northbound date: 96 on 8 March, 90 on 4 March (79 last season)

           Peak northbound week (main migration pulse): 531 grays: 28 Feb-5 Mar (395 last season)

          *Peak northbound weeks (cow/calf migration pulse); peaks 4-8 weeks after the main pulse

                     1. 85 cow/calf pairs (177 whales): 5-11 May      

                     2. 78 cow/calf pairs (168 whales): 18-24 April

           Fourth highest northbound count (highest in 30 seasons)

 

**PROBABLE ADDITIONAL GRAY WHALES: 19, including 2 southbound calves and 6 northbound calves

 

 

CALF COUNTS:

     Southbound calves: fewer than last season; first birth ever observed in our viewing area, on 26 January!

          33 southbound calves (2.3% of southbound migrants), from 2 January-14 February

             Last season we saw 50 newborn calves (2.6% of the southbound migrants)

          Peak southbound calf dates: 3 cow/calf pairs on 12 January, 26 January, and 30 January

              Record season: 1997-1998, with 106 calves (8.6% of southbound migrants)

              Previous southbound calf counts ranged from 3-60 (0.5%-8.9% of southbound migrants)

  *Northbound calves: record high count!

        *341 northbound calves  (13.4% of northbound migrants), from 9 April-22 May

          Peak northbound calf date: 20 cow/calf pairs on 22 April; 19 cow/calf pairs on 6 May and 7 May

              Previous record calf count: 2014-2015: 318 calves (14.9% of northbound migrants)

              Other calf counts ranged from 11-222 (0.9%-18.5% of northbound migrants)

        *Peak northbound calf week: 85 cow/calf pairs (177 whales): 5-11 May

 

GRAY WHALE BEHAVIORS, HUMAN INTERACTIONS

      Behaviors: milling, rolling, lunging, breaching, spyhopping, head lifting, pectoral fin slapping, fluke slapping,

                         playing in kelp ("kelping"), bubble blasting, mating, and calves exhibiting nursing behavior

                        (surfacing on alternating sides of the mom)

      Pods sizes changed: some pods separated or merged.

      Harassment (boats): 14 on 13 days - approached grays too closely; several nearly hit them!

                           (jet skis): 6 on 3 days - approached whales too closely, repeatedly chased them, nearly ran them over!

              Whale reactions: direction change (moved inshore, offshore, turned around, or milled), spyhopped, fluke

                                            slap, became low profile, or disappeared.

 

OTHER SPECIES SIGHTED (comparing this season to last season):

    We saw 14 other marine mammal species throughout our 183 observational days (176 days last season)

    Highlights: **RECORD SIGHTINGS of HUMPBACK WHALES, very rare FALSE KILLER WHALES
                          *One KILLER WHALE sighting

             common dolphin on 157 days (156)                              false killer whale on 9 days (2-4)

             bottlenose dolphin on 130-131 days (135)                  *KILLER WHALE* on 12 January (6)

             fin whale on 113-118+ days (116-131+)                        Risso’s dolphin on 27 May (3)

             Pacific white-sided dolphin on 113 days (134**)         Dall’s porpoise on 28 May (1)

             humpback whale** on 77-85 days (45-48)                   California sea lion on 162 days (165)

             blue whale on 16-20+ days (7-22)                                  harbor seal on 62 days (93)

             minke whale on 14-17 days (12-15)                               Steller sea lion on 1-2 days (0)

     *KILLER WHALES: this group passed too far offshore to identify the three whales.

         California Killer Whale Project: please help contribute to this citizen science research project!

          *Send photos/sighting data to:  janiger@cox.net; I will match images to our catalog, notify you with results.

 

PAST SEASONS: Other species sighted: sperm whale, pilot whale, northern right whale dolphin, beaked whale,

                                   northern elephant seal, and southern sea otter

INTERACTIONS: Gray whales interacted with: bottlenose, common, and Pacific white-sided dolphin, and sea lions

MIXED SPECIES GROUPS: mixed dolphin species, dolphin/sea lions, and other whales with dolphin/sea lions

MISC: Peregrine falcon*: Nearly daily: mated, raised three chicks (*first time nesting has been documented at PVIC)

             Osprey: Many days. Peregrine falcons (and ospreys) displaced resident ravens and red-tailed hawks.

                                                                                                                                                                                    

SPECIAL THANKS: To anchor Joyce Daniels (daily updates, graphs), and Dave Janiger (computer entries.

 

JOIN US! Contact Alisa Schulman-Janiger at: janiger@cox.net

    Gray Whale Census volunteers needed: 1 Dec-31 May;   No experience necessary; on-site training in December

     Whalewatch Naturalist Training Class: Highly recommended. Meets on Tuesdays, October-March, at the

         Cabrillo Marine Aquarium (CMA) [(310) 548-7562 (548-7770); www.cabrilloaq.org], co-sponsored by CMA and ACS/LA

   ACS/LA free lectures: Invited specialists, last Tuesday of each month - Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

   All day whalewatching trips: gray whales off Santa Catalina Island in March; humpback and blue whales in the Santa

       Barbara Channel during the summer (www.acs-la.org)

 

**This data is copyright-protected.  Please contact the Project Director for permission to cite in publications: janiger@cox.net