Art by Cassandra Stephenson and Photos Courtesy of Dana Wharf
Javier Monzon, a mammalogist and Assistant Professor of Biology at Pepperdine, stood waiting with his class for nearly two hours at Point Dume in hopes of catching a glimpse of a Pacific gray whale.
In the two years since he started teaching at Pepperdine, Monzon brought his Zoology and Animal Behavior classes to this spot in March — usually a prime time for observing the whales on their long trek to their northern feeding grounds.
But on this day in 2017, there were no whales to be seen. The group walked back to the bus. Just as they were about to step on, Monzon turned to the ocean to see a baseball-sized eye staring at them. The whale breached the surface mere feet away off Westward beach. For a moment, the group and the whale were eye-to-eye, sharing in mutual observation.
“I’m just as fascinated as the students are,” said Monzon, who had never seen a whale before moving to Southern California from the East Coast. “Any time that I get a chance to see one of the whales I’m just as wide-eyed as anybody else.”
This whale, an adult likely headed for the feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, was embarking on the second leg of its approximately 12,000 mile journey. The Pacific gray whale’s migration from their northern feeding grounds to the breeding lagoons in Baja is “not a trivial trip,” Monzon said. In fact, their migration is one of the longest of any mammal on earth.
The Pacific gray whale is not the only whale that swims in the waters off of Southern California — pilot whales, minke whales, humpback whales and blue whales are just some of the species that inhabit the rich coastal environment. But the close-to-shore migration patterns of Pacific gray whales mean that these animals are the most likely to be spotted by people from land.
Todd Mansur is on the Gray Whale Foundation Board of Directors and is an American Cetacean Society certified marine naturalist. He started learning about whales in the 1970s. His whale knowledge is rooted in “incredible on-the-job training” while captaining a boat that served as the floating marine ecology lab for the Orange County Marine Institute (now the Ocean Institute) for four years in the 1990s.
After that, his work with whales “just snowballed for the last 38 years.” For the past decade, Mansur has been teaching gray whale-centered curriculum to students in the Capistrano Unified School District and hosting whale-watching field trips as part of the Gray Whale Foundation. In the past 10 years, he said he’s taken more than 20,000 students out on the water to see these gigantic animals.
When he’s not focused on whales, Mansur is a fisherman (mostly sport fishing) and a charter boat captain. But whales have largely taken over in his goal of making a living while working with the ocean.
“I would say that they’re half of my life, but realistically, whales are three quarters of my life,” Mansur said. “I actually spend close to seven months a year just observing whales, whale watching, lecturing on whales [and] studying whales.”
The gray whale’s migration along the Southern California coastline is “fairly predictable,” Mansur said.
“I can predict it most years based on inclement weather in the Pacific northeast, how long they’re going to feed before they evacuate the feeding grounds which freeze over in the winter time and what route they’re going to take,” he said. “And the route does change.”
This year was a “late departure” year for the gray whale population. The majority of the population spent more time in the feeding grounds, not embarking on their massive journey until around the first week of October, Mansur said. In an “early year,” by contrast, the whales would leave in the second or third week of September.
“It’s not like there’s this huge window that changes — they start evacuating within about 21 days, early to late,” Mansur said. But the whales still need to get to the lagoons in Baja by December or early January, he added, so adult whales will swim faster and further away from the shore to make it to the lagoons in time for mating and calving rituals.
Gray whales have clearly increased their time in the feeding grounds, which are spreading further north as Arctic waters warm, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Mansur said the whales normally feed near the Bering Straits in the Bering Sea and the Chukchi Sea. But depending on how far the ice retracts in the summer, the whales can travel as far as the Beaufort Sea — far north of their usual grounds — in search of food.
Gray whales gain most of their nutrients from the sediment on the ocean floor in these cold water environments.
“They go down to the bottom, they lay on their sides, and wag their tongues back and forth to loosen the sediment and extract the nutrients in it, just like digging dirt in your garden,” Mansur explained. “There’s going to be worms and snails and spiders [in your garden].” For gray whales, it’s arthropods and crustaceans on the menu.
While warming waters and melting ice in the north mean more available feeding grounds for the whales, the arthropods and crustaceans that make up their diet thrive in colder conditions, Mansur said.
Colder water has higher oxygen levels and lower salinity levels, which encourage growth. As summer approaches and seasonal ice melts, light penetrates the waters.
“We get light penetration, fresh water and oxygen, so you have an enormous amount of nutrients, especially when you get into shallow water because light can penetrate through,” Mansur said.
Reduced ice cover and the melting of multi-year ice are well-documented, NOAA reports, but any connections between these Arctic environmental changes and the whales’ extended feeding grounds are unclear and debated.
These changes could be explained by the warming of Arctic waters, the invasion of other species also looking for food or potential over-grazing by a sizable whale population, NOAA states.
The current gray whale population rings in at around 26,000, according to the World Wildlife Fund. This number reflects what Mansur calls the “baby boomer generation” of juvenile whales born during a population surge in the early to mid 2010s. The Pacific gray whale became the first marine creature to be removed from the endangered list after a population bump in 1994. But between 1999 and 2000, scientists logged 200 to 300 stranded whales per year, very high compared to the average count of approximately 40, according to a 2002 NOAA report.
The population’s growth has slowed in recent years, Mansur said, “but we’re still seeing a lot of healthy mothers and calves.”
Pepperdine Chair of Natural Science and Professor of Biology Karen Martin also noted that warmer waters are one theory for why some gray whales appear to be shortening their trip, turning around before reaching the lagoons. Scientists believe the whales traveled to Baja to calve because of the warm water conditions there, Martin said.
“But now, they’re starting to have their babies on the way down instead of waiting until they get to Mexico, and just not even going all the way to Mexico sometimes,” she said.
Mansur has also seen a pattern in gray whales giving birth before reaching the lagoons. In fact, data from the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project show that 50 to 52 percent of gray whales are born north of Los Angeles, he said.
Taking into account the roughly 12-month gestation period for whales, this means that the calves were likely conceived even further north instead of in the southern mating grounds, Mansur said. But it’s typical of females to start accepting mates as far north as Oregon and continue to accept mates until they reach the lagoons to increase the chances of conception, he added.
Whale sightings during February of this year’s migration season are falling far below sightings in previous seasons, according to the ACS/LA Gray Whale census. At this time last year, nearly 1,000 whales were spotted from the project’s observation deck in Rancho Palos Verdes. The average number of whales recorded from this point for the past 10 seasons is just shy of 800. This year, nearly 700 whales have been recorded as of Feb. 28.
This doesn’t mean that there are fewer whales, but rather offers a glimpse into the mammals’ migration paths and timing, according to the gray whale census. Mansur said that with late season departures, whales that are sexually mature or about to birth calves swim outside of the Channel Islands, reducing coastline sightings.
“This is one of those years, so in the beginning of the season, when we were predicting to see large numbers of whales here in Southern California, they were actually offshore,” he said.
A Journey of 12,000 Miles
The adult gray whale spotted by Monzon and his students could have been a female on her way back to the feeding grounds after mating in the Baja lagoons.
What each whale does in the lagoons depends on their sex and age, Mansur said. Adult whales more than 8 years old go to the lagoons to mate. Sexually mature males will “hop” between each of the four lagoons — San Ignacio, Guerrero Negro, Lopez Mateos and Magdalena Bay — in search of mature females.
“They’re so eager to mate because that’s all they have to do for about six months,” Mansur said.
Juvenile whales under the age of 8 do not mate or court and tend to steer clear of the lagoons for fear of crossing paths with much larger mature males. These younger whales are more likely to head north earlier, where they might be able to “start picking their way into the Bering Sea early,” Mansur said.
The female, newly impregnated, will make the seven-week journey back to the feeding grounds later in the season to pile on about 30,000 pounds of blubber. She’ll need it for the trip back down the coast and for feeding her calf — gray whales shut down their digestive systems after leaving the Arctic, and mothers can lose an average of 1,000 pounds per week on the trip.
By the time she swims to the lagoons in Baja, she will give birth to her calf. Gray whale calves are 12 to 15 feet long at birth and weigh between 1,500 to 2,000 pounds.
“The mothers separate themselves from the general population,” Mansur said. “When you’ve got a 42-foot, 50,000 pound male that is trying to court every female in the lagoon, and there’s another thousand of them doing the same thing, having your 15-foot baby out there is not a smart thing to do.”
The mother will nurse her calf with up to 55 gallons of milk each day. The milk contains 53 percent milk fat, and her calf gains about two pounds every hour.
“They’re just literally big, fat babies with no muscle,” Mansur said.
Mothers are often friendlier while in the lagoons as well — Mansur said he has kissed and hugged them. One mother in particular liked to have her tongue scratched, and would warn him to remove his hand by spitting out some water before she closed her mouth.
Mothers and calves are usually the last to leave the lagoons to swim north in March. While migrating north with her calf, the mother will take it into beaches and coves where the water surges to exercise her calf and help it build the muscle it will need to survive the trip.
“This happens a lot in Southern California,” Mansur said. “You’ll see these animals frolicking and playing in the surf, building up muscle.”
As the calf builds muscle, they also build more myoglobin, oxygen-storing proteins that exist in muscles and help the calves hold their breath for longer periods.
The calf will need this exercise to face the 6,000 mile journey — and any inclement weather and predators — ahead.
The mother and her calf hug the coastline as they swim north — staying in an average of 50 feet of water or less. The gray whale’s 12,000 mile migration route could be shortened to 9,000 miles if they were to “cut corners” and swim in more open water, Mansur said.
But though adult whales have few to no predators and energy enough to withstand deeper waters, the same cannot be said for the calves.
Sharks and orcas are the main concerns for gray whale calves, Martin said.
Not all orcas — also known as killer whales — hunt gray whales, Martin noted. Only transient pods, which travel long distances, hunt marine mammals like seals and small gray whales.
Though it is more common for these transient pods to hunt whales in the Pacific northwest, they can travel to Southern California, Martin said, and some have been spotted hunting this year.
Adult gray whales don’t have much to worry about from killer whales, as the orca’s cone-shaped teeth prevent them from being able to tear much meat from a large carcass.
“There’s no way of cutting flesh from the carcass if you have a 50,000 pound animal; you have no way of using the force of the animal itself to pull apart flesh from the carcass,” Mansur explained.
Instead, transient killer whales seek out the depths of areas like Monterey Bay on the northbound migration to target the much smaller calves.
“For hunting whales, they want depth,” Mansur said. “And they want depth by surprise.”
Mother gray whales tow a fine line at the southeast point of Monterey Bay — if they swim just a few hundred yards too far away from the coast, they will suddenly be in 600 feet of water, Mansur said.
“And here’s an orca waiting beneath the surface to come up and blunt-force hit mom, trying to knock the wind out of her, grab her pectoral flippers, grab her tail, yank her underwater and start doing everything they can to exhaust her,” Mansur said.
With the mother exhausted, she will abandon her calf, which can then be drowned. Experienced transient pods can separate a mother from her calf in under an hour, Mansur added. Just last May, a killer whale pod killed an “unprecedented” four calves in seven days in Monterey Bay.
But if the mother stays close to the shore, both she and her calf have better chances, Mansur said, because they are less likely to be surprised or exhausted in shallow waters.
Gray whale mothers are known for fiercely defending their calves, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Mansur said there is empathy and sympathy in the bond between the two and other gray whales.
“You know there’s empathy and sympathy especially going back into the days [when] they were hunted,” he said, “If a mother was killed and the calf was alive but yet in danger, other adults would come and try to protect it.”
If the mother and calf survive the journey to the Bering Sea, she will teach the calf how to feed for the duration of the summer season. By the time they leave, the calf will be about 26 feet long, and the mother will weigh about 80,000 pounds.
On the southbound migration, around the place where the calf was born, the mother will abandon her calf.
“As far as science knows, they never recognize the sound or visual appearance of their mother ever again,” Mansur said. “And they’ll live to be about 60 to 80 years as far as we can tell right now. Amazing animals.”
This respect for the whales is what drives Mansur to continue watching and teaching about them.
“I’m doing it because people want to hear it,” he said. “They really appreciate it. And even though our population of gray whales is off the endangered species list — it has been since 1994 — nothing is safe completely out there.”
Mansur added that it’s important for humans to better manage their interactions with the ocean.
“The human population is too much for the ocean,” he said. “We have to start respecting it more and more and more.”
Follow Cassandra Stephenson on Twitter: @CassieKay27