ACS/LA GRAY WHALE CENSUS AND BEHAVIOR PROJECT: 2016-2017: 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

 

Our second highest southbound calf counts, highest northbound peak counts since 1988, rarely seen offshore type killer whales (traveling with fin whales), and rare looks at false killer whales highlighted our 2016/2017 ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project. This is the 34th 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 2016 - 25 May 2017

       2,128 hours over 176 days, averaging over 12 hours/day

       104 volunteers contributed 10,838 effort hours; 31 volunteers have been with us for over 10 years

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

         Sixteen core volunteers donated over 200 hours each (totaling 47.9% of our effort hours)

         Fifteen other volunteers donated 100-199 hours each (totaling 17.5% of our effort hours)

        

GRAY WHALE COUNTS:

     Northbound counts fell (still was our eight highest count); southbound counts were our fourth highest

         1.256 southbound (1,430 last season); southbound range: 301-1,902

         1,990 northbound (2,541 last season); northbound range: 521-3,412

           Gray whale counts fluctuate annually

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

               More foggy days this season; no visibility during four consecutive days of March northbound peak period

               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 ~20,990 (2010-11)

                   Gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994

 

PEAKS AND TURN-AROUND DATES:

    SOUTHBOUND: fourth highest southbound count; migration started later (after five early seasons)

         Peak southbound dates: 46 on 14 January. (Peak range: 15-98)

         Peak southbound week:  218 SB grays from 31 January-6 February (226 last season, a week earlier)

    TURN-AROUND (northbound exceeds southbound)

          First date that northbound exceeded southbound: 9 February

          Official turn-around: 27 February (daily northbound primarily exceeded southbound whales)

          No gap between migration phases; overlap (extended southbound migration)

               We spotted 67 northbound whales during the “southbound migration” phase

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

    NORTHBOUND: eighth highest count! More typical: earliest ending in six seasons; flukeless whale on 23 March!

           Peak northbound dates: 107 on 20 March, 105 on 18 March (96 last season); highest peak counts since 1988!

           Peak northbound week:

                Phase A - main migration pulse: 510 grays from 18-24 Mar (531 last season - 3 weeks earlier)

              *Phase B - cow/calf migration pulse: usually peaks 4-8 weeks after the main migration pulse

                    *Peak northbound calf week: 60 cow/calf pairs (144 whales): 20-26 April       

 

**PROBABLE ADDITIONAL GRAY WHALES: 13 grays; 1 more southbound calf , 9 more northbound calves

 

CALF COUNTS:

      Southbound calves: second highest newborn calf count; over twice last season's count!

          68 southbound calves (5.4% of southbound migrants), from 25 December-28 February

             Last season we saw 33 newborn calves (2.3% of the southbound migrants)

          Peak southbound calf dates: 7 cow/calf pairs on 13 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) 

           Peak southbound calf week: 18 cow/calf pairs (193 whales): 9-15 January       

  *Northbound calves: sixth highest count!

        *207 northbound calves  (10.4% of northbound migrants), from 9 March-17 May

        *Peak northbound calf date: 14 cow/calf pairs on 21 April

              Record calf count: 2015-2016: 341 calves (13.4% of northbound migrants)

              Other calf counts ranged from 11-318 (0.9%-18.5% of northbound migrants)

        *Peak northbound calf week: 60 cow/calf pairs (144 whales): 20-26 April       

 

GRAY WHALE BEHAVIORS, HUMAN INTERACTIONS

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

                         slapping, tail throwing, playing in kelp ("kelping"), bubble blasting, mating, calves on moms' backs,

                         and nursing behavior (surfacing on alternating sides of the mom).

      Pods sizes changed: some pods separated or merged.

      Entanglements: *Tracked 2 entangled grays: 28 Jan (buoys) and 20 March (pink gillnet); entanglement team responded

      Harassment (boats): 22+ on 13 days - approached grays too closely; several nearly hit them!

                           (jet skis): 3 jet skis on 2 days; SUP - approached whales too closely, nearly ran them over!  

              Whale reactions: nearly all turned stealthy and became low profile; paused; disappeared; longer dives;

                                            direction changes; spyhopped or lifted heads up; rolled onto side

          

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

    We saw 12-13 other marine mammal species throughout our 176 observational days (183 days last season)

    Highlights: Very rare *KILLER WHALES (offshore type and ETPs), and FALSE KILLER WHALES. 

             common dolphin on 151 days (157)                              false killer whale on 2-3 days (9)

             bottlenose dolphin on 134 days (130-131)                  *KILLER WHALES* on 19 Dec, 7 Jan (1)                       

             fin whale on 107-113 days (113-118)                            Dall’s porpoise on 29 Apr (1)

             Pacific white-sided dolphin on 48 days (113)              PROBABLE Risso’s dolphin on 1 Dec (1)        

             humpback whale on 24-25 days (77-85**)                  California sea lion on 147 days (162)  

             blue whale on 6-13 days (16-20+)                                 harbor seal on 43 days (62)

             minke whale on 3-4 days (14-17)                              

     *KILLER WHALES: 19 Dec. (Offshore type KWs); 7 Jan. (Eastern Tropical Pacific KWs); obtained ID images

          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 included sperm whale, pilot whale, northern right whale dolphin, beaked

                                                                                   whale, Steller sea lion, northern elephant seal, and southern sea otter

 INTERACTIONS: Gray whales interacted with bottlenose, common, and Pacific white-sided dolphin; 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 (*second year nesting documented at PVIC)

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

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

 

PLEASE 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 Tuesday nights, 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 etc.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