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

Census Project Director/Coordinator: Alisa Schulman-Janiger

Email: janiger@cox.net

For daily sighting details, please 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 near shore. 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 2,128 hours over the 176 days between 1 December 2016 and 25 May 2017 averaging over 12 hours/day). The 104 volunteers contributed 10,838 effort hours. The sixteen core volunteers donated over

200 hours each, totaling 47.9% of our effort hours (and the number of volunteered days) include: Joyce Daniels (153), Gregg Gentry (143), Gerrie Teague (84),  Sheila Parker (81), Bob Jensen (80), Gina Awtry (76), Kathy Beckman (75), Libby Helms (64), Richard Scholtz (60), Mike Malone (60), Cynthia Woo (59), Gordon Gates (55), Corine Sutherland (51), Chad Sprouse (50), Alisa Schulman-Janiger (47), and Mary Morrison (45).  Fifteen additional volunteers donated 100-199  hours each, totaling 17.5% of our effort hours. Experienced observers anchor all shifts; 31 volunteers have been with us for at least 10 seasons.

 

GRAY WHALE COUNTS ROSE: We spotted 1,256 southbound and 1,990 northbound gray whales (1,430 southbound and 2,541 northbound gray whales last season). This was our fourth highest southbound count, and our eighth highest northbound count. Whale counts have widely fluctuated over 33 previous seasons: southbound counts varied from 301-1,902, 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 off Palos Verdes, especially adults, 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 completing migration varies, and feeding ground conditions (especially ice coverage) affect migratory timing and corridors. Poor visibility drastically affects counts; that was especially true this season. Fog compromised visibility during portions of more days (69) than last season (61), including on half of the days between February-April; there was no visibility for four consecutive days during our March peak count period.

 

PEAKS AND TURN-AROUND DATES:. The peak southbound count of 46 was on 14 January; our previous peak counts ranged from 15-98. We spotted 218 southbound whales during the peak southbound week of 31 January -6 February (226 last season, a week earlier). Although our southbound migration did not start early (unlike the past five seasons), it extended later. Instead of the typical gap, we again had an overlap between migration phases. The official turn-around date (when daily northbound whales exceed southbound whales) was 27 February; northbound first exceeded southbound on 9 February. We spotted 67 northbound whales during the “southbound migration”, and 105 southbound whales during the “northbound migration”. Our peak northbound counts were 107 grays on 20 March, and 105 on 18 March (96 last season): our highest peak counts since March 1988!  Previous northbound peaks counts ranged from 20-152. We recorded 510 gray whales during the peak northbound week (main migration pulse) of 18-24 March (531 last season - 3 weeks earlier).

 

CALF COUNTS: We tallied our second highest southbound calf count, and our sixth highest northbound calf count! We spotted 68 newborn southbound calves (5.4% of southbound migrants) between 25 December-28 February, peaking with 7 calves on 13 January; peak week, 9-15 January, with 18 calves.  (Last season: 33 newborn calves: 2.3 % 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 counted 207 northbound calves (10.4% of northbound migrants), between 9 March-17 May, peaking with 14 calves on 21 April.  Last season we had a record count of 341* northbound calves (13.4% 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 55 cow/calf pairs (145 gray whales) between 17-23 April; this  peak northbound week (cow/calf migration pulse) typically occurs 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. **Probable additional gray whales: 13; 1 more southbound calf, and 9 more northbound calves.

 

BEHAVIORS AND HUMAN INTERACTIONS: We saw whales milling, rolling, lunging, breaching, spyhopping, head lifting, head slapping, pectoral flipper slapping, fluke slapping, tail throwing, 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 22+ boats that closely approached whales; on 2 days, we saw near-collisions with 3 jet skis and a SUP. Gray whales clearly reacted to these close calls: nearly all became stealthy and low profile; some paused, spyhopped, rolled, changed travel direction, dove longer, or disappeared (were never resighted). *A FLUKELESS gray whale was seen on 23 March. * We tracked two ENTANGLED gray whales: 28 Jan (many buoys) and 20 March (pink gillnet, buoys); entanglement team responded.

 

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 2010-2011 ENP population estimate was ~20,990.  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. In past 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. Gray whales sometimes 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 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 12-13 other marine mammal species over 176 days (183 days last season), including very rare KILLER WHALES and FALSE KILLER WHALES. Comparing this season (to last season), we saw common dolphin on 151 days (157), bottlenose dolphin on 134 days (130-131), fin whale on 107-113+ days (113-118+), Pacific white-sided dolphin on 48 days (113), humpback whale on 24-25 days (77-85**), blue whale on 6-13+ days (16-20+), minke whale on 3-4 days (14-17), false killer whale on 2-3 days (9 ),  KILLER WHALES* on 19 Dec, 7 Jan (1), Dall's porpoise on 29 April (1), PROBABLE Risso’s dolphin on 1 Dec (1), California sea lion on 147 days (162), and harbor seal on 43 days (62).

  *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!

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

PREVIOUS SEASONS - OTHER SPECIES SIGHTED: sperm whale, pilot whale, northern right whale dolphin, beaked whale, Steller sea lion, 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; last season they displaced the paired resident ravens

   and red-tailed hawks, raised three chicks (*this is the second consecutive year that nesting has been documented at PVIC)

   Osprey(s) were also seen on numerous days. Ospreys and peregrines continue to recover from DDT (pesticide) contamination.

    A likely striped marlin (16 February), and a Mola mola/ocean sunfish (24 May). Many days ended with green flash sunsets:

 

OBSERVERS' HOURS: (*new observers): afternoon anchor Joyce Daniels (590), Gregg Gentry (498), Kathy Beckman (450), Gina Awtry (375), Gerrie Teague Cole (372), Cynthia Woo (361), Libby Helms (306), Sheila Parker (291), Chad Sprouse (284), Corine Sutherland (265), Bob Jensen (254), Gordon Gates (237), Mike Malone (234), Census Project Director/Coordinator Alisa Schulman-Janiger (233), Richard Scholtz (221), Mary Morrison (219), Miriam Moses (180), Tony Carrillo (166), Laurie Thomson (161), Rod Jensen (136), Skip Eastman (135), Stacy Gremminger (123), Andy Veek (123), Stephanie Bryan (119), Dee Whitehurst (116), Nancy Johnson (116), Tina Hoff (110),  Pam Ryono (108), Joyce Neu (104), M’Liz Callender (104), Toni Owen* (102), Susan Stella* (99), Gina Lumbruno* (97), Jean Woodrow (96), Cheryl Revkin (95), Joyce Jessoe (95), Denise Donegan (94), Kim Watson Young (92), Stuart Warren* (91), Ken Ragland (87), Rachel Narr (85), Patti Indictor* (85), Brett Barker* (82), Barbara Stone (81), Eric Hemion (80), Pat Ashenfelter (79), Deborah Leon (77), Natalie Massey (77), Terry Bidle (75), Karl Veek (75), Roma Zuniga* (75), Reba Devine (74), Suzan Carne (70), Pat Harpole (68), Robin Riggs (68), Jean Rodgers (67), Cathy Ragland (65), Dave Morse (58), Joanne Kajiyama (57), Mark Indictor* (56), Carla Krysiak (56), Christy Varni (56), Irene Kurata (54), Nancy DeLong (54), Laura Marcella (53), Donna McLaughlin (53), Tamara Mason* (52), Jo Bonds (52), Erlinda Cortez (51), Bill Beck* (50), Shelly Browning* (50), Stan Kaminski (48), Vikki Franck (47), Paul Nitchman (47), Crystal Poynton Medina* (46), Joan Krause (45), Val Lattanza* (45), Stephanie Brito (40), Kathy Eddy* (39), Carl Gadow (39), Christy Nichol (36), Dawn English* (36), Karin Campbell (30), Lynn White (30), September Sucher (26), Leslie Brucker (25), Mike Brucker (25), Ashley Dohopolsky* (25), Alex Bednar* (24), Karen Diehhart* (21), Karin Williams*(20), Craig Olejnik* (20), Tricia Horn (19), Amy Heintz (18), Larissa Schultz (18), Eric Austin Yee (16), Jofran Lopez* (16), Sara Engl* (13), Justin Greenman (11), Carol Tokushige (11), Wes Tokushige (11), Vickie Frederick* (11), Sally Sadler (11), and Tom Budar (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.