Gray Whale southbound migration is on its way! Are you ready?
Sea Ranch Sighting Surprises
It is early morning at The Sea Ranch in the late fall. With coffee in hand, you’re doing your best to fully awaken.
But it isn’t until you see them from the window – multiple spouts shooting high into the air in the not too far distance – that you truly become alert and excited.
“Whales! Whales are passing right in front of us !!”
With that you’re fully awake now! As are all the rest of the family from your giggles of delight watching the Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus) migration.
Whether it’s your first time or hundredth, nothing compares to being witness to these amazingly sweet leviathans. It’s always a thrill to view them breach and spout as they make their way between Alaska’s frigid waters and the warm waters of their nursery lagoons in Mexico.
Fall’s Gray Whale Southbound Migration Begins Soon!
We’re so very excited to share the announcement by our friend, Scott Mercer, Founder and Research Scientist at Mendonoma Whale and Seal Study. Scott believes Gray Whale southbound migration of the fall season should be reaching The Sea Ranch coast in the upcoming weeks.
What is a Gray Whale?
Gray Whales belong to the order of Cetacea, one of the most distinctive and highly specialized orders of mammals. All cetaceans have a long, strong diaphragm which allows them to rapidly exhale causing a spray of vapor as they surface and quickly inhale before submerging. Their blows are usually low and puffy or heart-shaped.
In fact, the phrase “Thar she blows!” was coined by whale hunters who spotted the column of vapor as the whales exhaled.
As a member of the Baleen family of whales, the Gray’s characteristic baleen plates and paired blowholes help distinguish baleen whales from toothed whales. The coarse baleen plates are used to filter their food. Each has approximately 300 plates of cream-colored baleen hanging from its upper jaw. Two to five throat creases allow their throats to expand during feeding.
Gray whales are medium-sized whales, reaching up to 45 feet (14 m) in length, with the females usually being larger than the males. They are gray with white patches, which mostly consist of areas where barnacles and lice have attached themselves to the whales. In fact, they carry over 400 pounds of barnacles and whale lice. Gray whales have no dorsal (back) fins. Instead, they have a low hump and a series of six to twelve knuckles or bumps. Sparse hairs are found on the snout, especially in young whales.
Gray Whale Quick Facts
Adult ♂ : 43 feet (13 m)
Adult ♀ : 46ft (14.1 m)
Birth Length :14-16 ft (4.5-5 m)
Adult ♂ : 30-40 tons (27,200-36,300 kg)
Adult ♀ : 30-40 tons (27,200-36,300 kg)
Birth Weight : 2,000 lb (920 kg)
Gray Whale Migration
Whale migrations are time-coupled to the breeding/mating season. However, climate changes, water temperature, depth, salinity, the topography of the sea floor and the biggest, the abundance of food, also play a major role in these events.
For Gray Whales, their basic migration pattern follows that of most baleen whales between winter breeding grounds in low latitude, warm waters and summer feeding areas in higher latitudes’ cool waters.
Gray whales in the space of a year will have swum 10,000 miles round-trip between their Arctic feeding grounds to their nursery waters of the Baja Peninsula.
By late November the majority of the Gray Whale southbound migration is underway heading south, along the west coast of Canada and the United States. In Northern California, your best time to spot gray whales and orcas is December to May. The whales will swim 24 hours a day on during their 5,000-mile long journey to their winter home in the warm lagoons of Mexico.
Starting in February, gray whales begin their return 5,000-mile migration from their winter calving grounds in Mexico to their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic Bering Sea area. The return groups include new mothers with their calves.
Migration Is Not without Peril
The Gray Whales’ migration back north is not without peril. This video by National Geographic shows a mother gray whale and her calf are on their migration path through Monterey Bay. But first, they must get past a pack of killer whales.
No Rest for the Weary
Scientists believe Gray whales don’t actually stop to sleep. Rather, they may be “half asleep” as they continue swimming on “autopilot.” They experience unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS). That is, they sleep with one half of their brain while the other half is awake, including an open eye. This trait most likely developed as a protective mechanism. Being half asleep, literally, enables the animal to swim and monitor its environment for threats with the awake hemisphere while the other gets some rest.
Once they arrive to their lagoons they catch up on sleep. Here they have even been observed snoring! Others say the whales take short naps of 10-20 minutes.
Where to View the Migration at Sea Ranch
Thanks to the Gray’s nearshore migration route, you can easily observe the gray whale southbound migration from The Sea Ranch ocean bluff trail. You can even see their spouts from the oceanfront windows of Abalone Bay’s living room.
The real challenge, however, is to have your camera or smartphone at the ready to capture the photo or video as they breach and spout.
Because a whale spout can surprise you, we recommend keeping both binoculars and camera next to the door. That way you can just grab them on the run to the cliff to view these travelers of the sea.
Meet Our Favorite Whale Watchers, Scott, and Tree Mercer
Scott has been studying marine mammals since 1974. He is accompanied by his wife, Tree, a retired high school biology teacher with 35 years of experience. This time of year finds them on the Mendonoma Coast at Point Arena Lighthouse counting whales and other marine mammals as they pass. This stalwart husband and wife team often must endure blustery and foggy days to keep track of the gray whales, humpbacks and occasionally seeing the Blue whales.
You can follow Scott’s daily observations of the Gray whale migrations directly on their Facebook page, Mendonoma Whale and Seal Study.
About Mendonoma Whale and Seal Study
The goal of Mendonoma Whale and Seal Study is to enhance understanding of the presence of marine mammals along the coast of California. Throughout the winter and early spring, they record the movements of resident and migratory whales and seals.
Their meticulous data provides needed information about these marine mammals’ migration patterns. The data is used by whale watch companies, State and Federal agencies, scientists, research groups, conservation organizations, and the media. In fact, Scott frequently chats with us about their observations on our Sea Ranch Abalone Facebook page.
What We Love about Scott and Tree
What we love about Scott and Tree is how readily they share their research with all who are interested in understanding these magnificent animals. Scott is a frequent guest lecturer sharing his vast knowledge of whales at local venues.
You can listen to Scott’s interview on KGUA Peggy’s Place describing the Gray Whale southbound migration and get a sense of the great work he does each year (duration: 48 min).
Importance of Citizen Science
Mendonoma Whale and Seal Study welcome your citizen observations. Other agencies interested in your observations include:
Below are tips, many from Whale Tale, to help you to become a better citizen scientist and observer of the Gray Whale southbound migration.
How to Look for Spouts:
Once you have a clear view of the ocean shore follow these steps to locate whale spouts:
- Scan from left to right, slowly, and then back again. Keep your gaze close to shore, then look out across the horizon. Watch for anything that breaks the surface of the water.
- Look for other observers along the shore or boats, especially if they are stopped. Sometimes the best way to find marine mammals is to find the other people who are watching them.
- Is it a log, or is it a whale? Whale-watchers in the Northwest often get fooled by driftwood or logs that look like animals, floating on the surface of the water. But marine mammals are on the move – typically, they will surface, dive, then come up again in a different place. If what you are watching stays on the surface and in the same location for a while…it’s likely not a marine mammal.
What to look for:
Spouts, or blows.
These plumes of water are formed when a whale exhales at the surface. They can look like puffs of smoke on the horizon. The shape and size of the blow are distinctive to each species, based on the size and shape of their blowhole.
- Gray whales have a double blow-hole, and their spouts are heart-shaped.
- Humpback whales have a tall, column-shaped blow.
- Orcas typically have a bushy-shaped blow.
If you see something that looks like a blow, keep watching! Some whales can dive for 10 minutes, or longer, so keep looking in the general area where you first saw the blow.
All cetaceans have dorsal fins or ridges, but the size, shape, and location on their backs differ.
- Gray whales have small dorsal ridges,
- Orcas have pronounced triangular fins that can grow to over 6 feet high on males.
Cetaceans have powerful tail flukes that propel them through the water. Unlike fish whose tails move side to side, whales move their tails up and down.
If you see a whale’s tail, it is likely going down for a dive, and it will be a few minutes before you see it again.
To prepare for deep dive, or fluking, the whale arches his back, moving the central part of his body above water to get a better downward angle. Fluking can provide researchers a good look at the tail markings. Flukes can be distinct enough in shape and size to identify not only species but also individual whales.
Some whales, notably fin whales and minke whales, don’t fluke.
Cetaceans display a wide range of surface behaviors.
- A big splash may indicate that a whale has just breached.
- A large field of splashes and ripples may be the clue that dolphins are passing by.
How many are in the group?
Whether a cetacean is traveling alone or in a group can also help provide clues about the kind of animal you are seeing. It’s also important to note for your sightings report. The toothed cetaceans (Orcas, dolphins) travel in large, sometimes stable pods; they frequently hunt their prey in groups, migrate together, and share care of their young. Baleen whales (Gray, Humpback, Blue) usually travel alone or in small pods.
- Gray whales travel in small groups or individually, though they’ve been reported to be in groups as large as 16
- Humpbacks travel in large (10+), loose, temporary groups. Bubble-net feeding is a group hunting activity
- Blue whales usually are solitary animals.
- Orcas travel in pods and are almost never seen alone.
- Harbor porpoises and Dall’s porpoises travel in small groups,
- Pacific white-sided dolphins travel in big groups of up to thousands of individuals.
Citizen Science in Action
Last summer I was lucky enough to capture this video which, I later shared with Scott. It provided documentation that juvenile grays remained on The Sea Ranch coast 12 months of the year!
View more of the incredible photos captured by Abalone Bay‘s guest, Phillip Colla: Whale and Dolphin Photographs-Underwater, Aerial and Topside Photos of Cetaceans http://www.oceanlight.com/html/cetaceans.html
Book Now for Your Front Row Seat to the Gray Whale Migrations
Are you ready to watch this year’s Gray Whale migrations from the comfort of your easy chair? Then check out Abalone Bay’s calendar to find your dates. We’ll look forward to welcoming not only the whales but also you to Sea Ranch.Book now