The incredible journey, part 2Published April 4, 2002
They arrive at sunrise every day at the very edge of a 125-foot bluff at Point Vicente. They sit on a platform at the precipice, perched on folding chairs, and peer out over the water. They wait and watch, and count every whale that passes. They are volunteers for the American Cetacean Society Whale Census and Behavior Project, and perhaps nobody is waiting with more hope for the appearance of mother whales with their young.
“For many of the people who do this, that really is the highlight,” says Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a marine biologist who is the director of the census project. “It’s like every little one is a cause for celebration.”
Fifty-five whale watchers volunteer for the census project. They work in shifts, so that a group is always watching, from sunrise to sundown, from Dec. 1 until the end of May. The project has been going for 21 years, including the last 18 years consecutively; last year, 64 volunteers put in a total of 7,805 hours. One volunteer, Joan Venette, has logged more than 12,000 hours over the last 16 years.
The whale watchers at the census project had a unique vantage point from which to watch the ups and downs of the gray whale population. Although they view only a small proportion of the whales—for example, past northbound counts have ranged from 792 to 3412, much of the variance having to do with visibility on the coast — they have been able to gauge the timing of overall migration trends over the years. Their calf counts have also been largely indicative of larger population changes. For the past three years, this has meant calf counts have been worrisomely low. There were only 33 northbound calves spotted last year, for example, representing only 4.4 percent of northbound migrants, and this followed the previous two season’s counts of 19 and 34. A record season occurred in the year just prior this drastic three-year decline, when 222 northbound calves were spotted, representing 13.8 percent of the northbound migrants.
But as much as the census project is about numbers, it also about observing behavior. Perhaps more than anything, it is about a love for these animals. Schulman-Janiger, the driving force behind the project, has passionately studied whales for almost 25 years. She has paid especially close attention to the yearly drama of gray whale motherhood.
“Basically, you are talking about an animal that has to go 6,000 miles not feeding giving birth to something 15 feet long,” she says. “It has to stop and nurse 10 to 12 times a day and try to keep its calf safe from killer whales. It’s an incredible journey.”
Nurseries, whalers, and Orcas
There are four lagoons in Baja Mexico where the whales go, and though they are often called birthing lagoons, Schulman-Janiger thinks they should more appropriately be thought of as nursery lagoons.
“It’s kind of like a vacation area for the whales,” she says. “It’s warm water, nice and safe, where they don’t have to worry about killer whales. For the mother, it’s kind of like ‘I get to sleep, and sleep and sleep,” and for the calves its a chance to play and practice swimming. And the longer they wait, it also give the young ones a chance to build up their blubber layer for the trip north.”
It was the discovery of these safe havens by an American whaling captain named Charles Melville Scammon in 1857 that nearly lead to the extinction of the whales. Scammon sailed into Laguna Ojo de Liebre — now often called Scammon’s Lagoon — and found the water thick with whales. He and his harpooners went on a killing frenzy that lasted 13 years and nearly wiped out the population. Gray whales were coveted primarily for their baleen, which was used for brushes, while the blubber also provided relatively low-grade lamp oil. It was also at this time that gray whales earned the moniker “Devilfish.” Whalers often went after calves as a way of luring the mother, who often reacted with aggressive attacks, actually destroying several boats.
In the last 20 years, the lagoons have become a place of pilgrimage for whale watchers, and an interesting change in gray whale behavior has been observed. The whales have become friendly, even solicitous of human contact. They are known to “spyhop,” or hold themselves straight up in shallow waters, so their head is above water and they can look eye-to-eye with delighted tourist boats. The whales also tend to surface near boats, allowing themselves to be petted. Mothers even lift their young up in the air near boats, as if to show off their newborns.
Baja may be a place of relaxation and play, but by the time the whales reach the California coast, mothers attempt to keep as low a profile as possible. Schulman-Janiger recalls a time when she observed a cow-calf pair moving at an easy pace about a mile from Pt. Vicente suddenly make a 90 degree turn and “make a bee-line” towards the coast.
“It was a calm gray day, and it was such a bizarre change in behavior that we thought a boat, or even a jet ski, must be coming,” she said. “The cow-calf pair went straight into a kelp bed—not outside the kelp bed, but in it — and a few minutes later we saw a group of Orcas 1.5 miles out heading north.” The gray whales stayed in the kelp for about an hour, she said, even breathing more quietly than normal. They then continued their journey “in a very low profile way.”
It isn’t always easy for mothers to keep their calves in line. Like most young mammals, exuberance is hard to contain for a young whale. Schulman-Janiger once watched and counted in amazement as a calf breached 64 times as it passed before Pt. Vincente. “You could see the mom chugging along, every so often looping back around, ‘Come on, junior time to go.’ The calf is jumping like a little kid going ‘Whee!’”
Killer whales do not regularly range in this area, but they have a congregation of their own from mid-April til mid-May up near Monterey that appears to be a gray whale festival of sorts. Schulman-Janiger was there a few years ago and observed more than 100 Orcas form “something like a gauntlet” as they waited for the northward migration of the gray whale cow-calf pairs. Although mother gray whales are often observed with bite marks, it is the babies that the Orcas are really after.
“It’s seems as if they come to look forward to gray whales every year at this time,” she says. “It’s the young ones they attack. They aren’t as good at swimming and they are nice and soft—think of lamb and veal. They are like a delicacy. Two years ago every killer whale we knew was there. They were going back and forth, back and forth, like ‘Where are they?’”
The attack itself is a gruesome thing to behold. It often takes hours and several Orcas before the baby whale is finally killed. The mother battles frantically the whole time. Wayne Perryman says that he has seen a mother nudging a carcass—much of which is left uneaten—long after the baby had died. Schulman-Janiger has seen a mother flip on its back and put the baby on its belly, letting the killer whales nip away at its thick back as it tries to protect its offspring. Sometimes this even works, but whales can only stay in this position for a few minutes at a time.
“It’s really hard to not want to interfere,” she says. “It’s part of nature, but you see a young animal in trouble and you want to do something to protect it.”