ACS/LA GRAY WHALE CENSUS AND BEHAVIOR PROJECT: 2017-2018: 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 third highest southbound calf counts and more Pacific white-sided dolphin sightings highlighted our 2017/2018 ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project. This is the 35th 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 cliff-side post is on the patio of the Point Vicente Interpretive Center (PVIC), 138 feet above kelp beds and rocky shoreline, with a seafloor that drops off abruptly nearshore. Citizen scientists - trained volunteers - collect data on gray whales and other cetaceans, including identifications, counts, and behaviors. All participants use binoculars; some also use spotting scopes to confirm/detail sightings. Weather data (visibility, weather conditions, and sea conditions) is recorded at least twice hourly.

 

COVERAGE:

      1 December 2017 - 25 May 2018

       2,098 hours over 176 days, averaging nearly 12 hours/day

       109 volunteers contributed 9,926 effort hours; 23 volunteers have been with us for at least 10 years

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

         Twelve core volunteers donated over 200 hours each (totaling 34.2% of our effort hours)

         Thirty other volunteers donated 100-199 hours each (totaling 35.2% of our effort hours)

        

GRAY WHALE COUNTS:

     Southbound counts dropped (our ninth highest); northbound counts dropped slightly (our ninth highest).      

         929 southbound (1,256 last season); southbound range: 301-1,902

         1,951 northbound (1,990 last season); northbound range: 521-3,412

           Gray whale counts fluctuate annually

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

               Fewer foggy days this season; fog compromised visibility during portions of fewer days (59) than last season (69)

               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 ~26,960 (2015-16)

                   Gray whales were removed from the endangered species list in 1994

 

PEAKS AND TURN-AROUND DATES:

    SOUTHBOUND: ninth highest southbound count; migration started later and ended later

         Peak southbound dates: 42 on 19 January.  Previous southbound peaks: ranged from 15-98

         Peak southbound week:  171 SB grays from 10-16 February (218 last season, 10 days earlier)

    TURN-AROUND (northbound exceeds southbound)

          First date that northbound exceeded southbound: 18 February

          Official turn-around: 23 February (when daily northbound primarily exceeded southbound whales)

          No gap between migration phases; huge overlap (later - and extended - southbound migration)

               We spotted 126 northbound whales during the “southbound migration” phase

               We spotted 99 southbound whales during the “northbound migration” phase

    NORTHBOUND: ninth highest count

           Peak northbound dates: 88 on 17 March, 72 on 18 March (107 and 105 last season)

              Previous northbound peaks: ranged from 20-152               

           Peak northbound weeks:

                Phase A - main migration pulse: 398 grays from 16-22 Mar (510 last season)

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

                    *Peak northbound calf week: 27 cow/calf pairs (68 whales) from 20-26 April (60 pairs last season)

 

**PROBABLE ADDITIONAL GRAY WHALES CALVES: 5 southbound calves , 10 northbound calves

 

CALF COUNTS:

      Southbound calves: third highest newborn calf count!

          61 southbound calves (6.6% of southbound migrants), from 29 December-16 February

             Last season we saw 68 newborn calves (5.4% of the southbound migrants)

          Peak southbound calf date: 7 cow/calf pairs on 19 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: 21 cow/calf pairs (123 whales): 13-19 January       

  *Northbound calves: seventeenth highest count

        *104 northbound calves  (5.3% of northbound migrants), from 6 March-24 May

              Last season we saw 207 calves (10.4% of northbound migrants)

        *Peak northbound calf date: 7 cow/calf pairs on 14 April

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

              Other calf counts ranged from 11-318 (0.9%-22.9% of northbound migrants)

        *Peak northbound calf week: 27 cow/calf pairs (68 whales): 20-26 April

 

GRAY WHALE BEHAVIORS, HUMAN INTERACTIONS

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

                         slapping, tail throwing, playing in kelp ("kelping"), bubble blasting, mating, and nursing behavior

                         (surfacing on alternating sides of the mom).

      Harassment:  Boats: 29+, 21 encounters  (19 days). Approached grays too closely; several nearly hit them!

                              Jet skis: 2 jet skis (1 day)         Helicopter: 1 helicopter on 1 day

              Whale reactions: nearly all changed travel direction (zig-zag, turn outward or inward). Some: sped up or slowed

                                            down; milled; rolled; stopped rolling/interacting with each other; became stealthy/low

                                            profile; disappeared. A few lifted their heads; one breached. One whale pooped!

          

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

    We saw 9-11 other marine mammal species throughout our 176 observational days

    Highlights:  *KILLER WHALES on 3 days, and more sightings of Pacific white-sided dolphin.
          common dolphin on 161 days (151)                     *KILLER WHALES* on 3 days: 19 Dec, 24 and 27 Jan  (1)

          bottlenose dolphin on 154-155 days (134)             Risso’s dolphin on 0-1 days (1)                        

          fin whale on 108-118 days (107-113)                     minke whale on 0-1 days (3-4)

          Pacific white-sided dolphin on 69-70 days (48)    Unidentified whales: 41 days (poor condition/distant views)                   

          humpback whale on 37-39 days (24-25)                California sea lion on 170 days (147)  

          blue whale on 15-18+ days (6-13+)                         harbor seal on 65+ days (43+)

     *KILLER WHALES: obtained ID images - known Bigg's (transient) killer whales

          California Killer Whale Project: please help contribute to this long-term 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, false killer whale, northern right whale

    dolphin, Dall's porpoise, beaked whale, Steller sea lion, northern elephant seal, and southern sea otter

 INTERACTIONS: Gray whales with fin whale; 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 falcons* nearly daily - raised a chick (*third year nesting here);  Osprey: often; Bald eagle: one day

   Ospreys, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles continue to recover from DDT (pesticide) contamination.

 

* 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

     Cabrillo 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 (and more!) 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