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

Census Project Director/Coordinator: Alisa Schulman-Janiger

Email: janiger@cox.net

For daily sighting details, please 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 (identifications, counts, and behaviors). All participants use binoculars (most with reticles and compass), and several use spotting scopes to confirm and detail sightings. Weather data (visibility, weather conditions,  and sea conditions), is recorded at least twice hourly.

 

COVERAGE: Our census station operated for 2,213 hours over the 153 days between 1 December 2015 and 31 May 2016 (averaging over 12 hours/day). The 98 volunteers contributed 9,296 effort hours. The fourteen core volunteers that donated over 200 hours each, totaling more than 51% of our effort hours (and the number of volunteered days) include: Joyce Daniels (153), Greg Gentry (137), Gerrie Teague (105), Sheila Parker (86), Mike Malone (81), Kathy Beckman (81), Richard Scholtz (68), Gina Awtry (66), Corine Sutherland (57), Mary Morrison (51), Libby Helms (48), Gordon Gates (41), Miriam Moses (41), and Alisa Schulman-Janiger (36). Twenty-one additional volunteers donated 100-199  hours each, totaling nearly 29% of our effort hours. Experienced observers anchor all shifts.

 

GRAY WHALE COUNTS ROSE: We spotted 1,430 southbound and 2,541 northbound gray whales (1,902 southbound and 2,141 northbound gray whales last season). This was our second highest southbound count (exceeded only by last season), and our fourth highest northbound count (highest in 30 seasons). Whale counts have widely fluctuated over 32 previous seasons: southbound counts varied from 301-1,301, and northbound counts varied from 521-3,412. Although most of the ~21,000 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 our visibility during portions of a few more days this season (61) as last season (55).

 

PEAKS AND TURN-AROUND DATES: For the fifth consecutive season, our southbound migration started early. The peak southbound counts were 57 on 26 January, and 55 on 6 February; our previous peak counts ranged from 15-98. We spotted 226 southbound whales during the peak southbound week of 24-30 January (259 last season, same week). Instead of the typical gap, we again had a rare extended overlap between migration phases. The official turn-around date (when daily northbound whales exceed southbound whales) was on 17 February. We spotted 105 northbound whales during the “southbound migration”, and 81 southbound whales during the “northbound migration”. Our peak northbound counts were 96 grays on 8 March, and 90 on 4 March.  Previous northbound peaks counts ranged from 20-152. We recorded 531 gray whales during the peak northbound week (main migration pulse) of 28 Feb-5 March (395 last season).

 

CALF COUNTS:- A CALF IS BORN, AND RECORD NORTHBOUND COUNTS! We spotted 33 newborn southbound calves (2.3% of southbound migrants) between 2 January-14 February, including one that was born in our viewing area on 26 January!  Last season we saw 50 newborn calves, which was 2.6 % of the southbound migrants. Our record high southbound calf 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), with the lowest percentage (0.5%) in 1988-1989. We tallied a record  341** northbound calves (13.4% of northbound migrants), between 9 April-22 May, peaking with 20 calves on 22 April. This surpassed last season's record northbound calf count: 318 northbound calves (14.9% of northbound migrants). Previous record calf counts included 260 northbound calves (22.9% of northbound migrants) in 2011-2012,  and 222 calves (13.8% of northbound migrants) in 1996-97. Our other calf counts have ranged from 11-196 (0.9%-18.5% of northbound migrants). We recorded 85 cow/calf pairs (177 gray whales) between 5-11 May, and 78 cow/calf pairs (168 gray whales) between 18-24 April. These were our peak northbound weeks (cow/calf migration pulse); this pulse peaks 4-8 weeks later that the main pulse, which allows calves to nurse longer and strengthen swimming skills in Baja lagoons before initiating their perilous migration northward. We also logged additional probable gray whale sightings of 19 whales - including 2 southbound cow/calf pairs and 6 northbound cow/calf pairs.

 

BEHAVIORS AND HUMAN INTERACTIONS: We watched a gray whale give birth on 26 January! We also saw whales milling, rolling, lunging, breaching, spyhopping, head lifting, pectoral flipper slapping, fluke slapping, playing in kelp (“kelping”), bubble blasting, mating, nursing behavior (calves surfacing on alternating sides of their moms), and  pods separating and merging. On 13 days, we witnessed near-collisions involving 14 boats that closely approached whales; on 3 days, we saw near-collisions with 6 jet skis. Grays whales clearly reacted to these close calls, usually including  direction changes (inshore, offshore, turn around, mill), and also did breaches, spyhops, head lifts, fluke slaps, or became low profile or disappeared.

 

HIGHER COUNTS: Our higher gray whale counts reflect 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's 2012 population estimate was ~21,000.  Gray whales were removed 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 impact 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 shifted northward as they followed their prey; strandings decreased and calf production increased. Although we again saw an early migration this season, in other seasons grays have ignored the initial migration cue (shortened daylight hours) so that they can rebuild blubber that allows them to fast during migration and on Baja nursery ground, and provides energy to withstand disease, storms, and killer whale attacks. Gray whale calf recruitment remains very healthy; high numbers of documented calves continue to reverse the past trend of lower counts.

 

OTHER SPECIES SIGHTED: We spotted 14 other marine mammal species over 183 days (176 days last season), including record sightings of  humpback whales**.  Comparing this season (to last season), we saw common dolphin on 157 days (156), bottlenose dolphin on 130-131 days (135), fin whale on 113-118+ days (116-131), Pacific white-sided dolphin on 113 days (134**), humpback whale** on 77-85 days (45-48), blue whale on 16-20+ days (7-22), minke whale on 14-17 days (12-15), false killer whale on 9 days ( 2-4 ),  KILLER WHALE* on 12 January (6), Risso’s dolphin on 27 May (3), Dall's porpoise on 28 May (0), California sea lion on 162 days (165), harbor seal on 62 days (93), and a Steller sea lion on 1-2 days (0)

   *KILLER WHALE: this pod passed too far offshore to identify the three whales.

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

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

PREVIOUS SEASONS - OTHER SPECIES SIGHTED: sperm whale, pilot whale, northern right whale dolphin, beaked whale, northern elephant seal, and southern sea otter.

GRAY WHALE INTERACTIONS: gray whales sometimes interacted with other marine mammals including bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, and sea lion. We also observed mixed species groupings: different types of dolphin, dolphin with sea lion.. and other whales with dolphin/sea lion.

MISCELLANEOUS: Two peregrine falcons* were observed nearly daily, they battled the resident raven and red-tailed

   hawks pairs, displaced the ravens from the ravens' nesting site - then raised three chicks - our first nesting falcons!

   Osprey(s) were also seen on numerous days; these two species continue to recover from DDT (pesticide) contamination.

    Rare basking shark  (25 March) , and a likely striped marlin. Green flash sunsets: beautifully ended many of our census days.

 

OBSERVERS' HOURS: (*new observers): afternoon anchor Joyce Daniels (603), Kathy Beckman (492), Gerrie Cole Teague (477), Greg Gentry (473), Gina Awtry (411), Sheila Parker (306), Mike Malone (295), Corine Sutherland (280), Libby Helms (275), Gordon Gates (268), Richard Scholtz (259), Miriam Moses (223), Census Project Director/Coordinator Alisa Schulman-Janiger (207), Mary Morrison (203), Tony Carrillo (189), Laurie Thomson (168), Rod Jensen (142), Stacy Gremminger (140), Carol Tokushige (138), Wes Tokushige (138), Dee Whitehurst (135), Andy Veek (131), Robin Zimmerman* (129), Pam Ryono (125), Stephanie Bryan (124), Carl Gadow (120), Chad Sprouse (120), Barbara Stone (118), Tina Hoff (116), Skip Eastman (113), Cheryl Revkin (113), M’Liz Callender (110), Joyce Jessoe (101), Jean Woodrow (101), Pat Ashenfelter (100), Eric Hemion (95), Natalie Massey (92), Nancy Johnson* (88), Stephanie Brito (86), Ken Ragland (84), Jo Bonds (83), Bob Jensen (83), Reba Devine (82), Kathy Hill* (82), Pat Harpole (73), Suzan Carne (70), Candy Brassard (70), Robin Riggs (68), Cynthia Woo (66), Dave Brassard (66), Dave Morse (65), Jean Rodgers (65), Erlinda Cortez (64), Nancy DeLong (64), Rachel Narr (62), Joan Krausse (62), Cathy Ragland (60), Joyce Neu (59), Donna McLaughlin (59), Deborah Leon (58), Amy Heintz (57), Lynn White (55), Larry Howe (53), Irene Kurata (52), Stan Kaminski (49), Sally Sadler (49),Christy Varni (49), Justin Greenman (48), Paul Nitchman (44), Christy Nichol* (43), Vikki Franck (43), Terry Bidle (42), June Guinan (38), Kris De-Roo (37), Karl Veek (36), Larissa Schultz (33), Laura Marcella (32), Tricia Horn (32), Mario Moreno (30), Tom Budar (26), Louisa Kosel (26), Barbara McCoy* (24), September Sucher (23), JoLinda Garnier (23), Ben Barnes (21), Barbara Eidel (19), Hugh Ryono (18), Victoria Chalaya (17), Bette Williams (17), Meta Dunn (17), Carla Mitroff (15), Janet McClellan (14), Kim Watson Young (13), Carla Krysiak (13), Karin Campbell (12), Denise Donegan (12), Richard Woo* (11), and Eric Austin Yee (10).

 

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

 

JOIN US! Contact Alisa Schulman-Janiger at: janiger@cox.net. No experience necessary: on-site training in November and December. Highly recommended: attend the Whalewatch Training Class at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium (CMA) [(310) 548-7562 (548-7770); 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).

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