By Caitlin Scully, Birch Aquarium at Scripps naturalist
Note: Caitlin will be reporting weekly about the gray-whale migration. Add us to your RSS feeds to stay up-to-date!
The whale-watching season is off to a great start! Even though we’re at the beginning of the annual migration, our naturalists have already experienced unique encounters with gray whales, local dolphins, sea lions, and even a fin whale.
The first week – Dec. 26 to Jan. 2 – started off chilly, but through the cold we spotted dozens of individual gray whales. Most were very large and steadfast in their southbound migration. We assume that many of these particular grays were pregnant females rushing to finish the last few hundred miles in order to reach the birthing and breeding lagoons in Baja California.
As we eased into the second week of the season, we began to see more action on the water. Gray whales tend to lead solitary lives, but may form temporary groups while on migration. Sometimes these groups consist of three whales “flirting” – rolling in the water, swimming on their backs, splashing, and even breaching. One day, we were lucky enough spot a flirting group and saw one whale breach four times in a row! I was so excited, the captain had to ask me not to scream into the microphone.
We’ve also experienced some intimate moments with the whales. Sometimes, a mother gray gives birth while migrating down the coast of California. We encountered one such pair, a mother and calf splashing in the water. The calf opened its mouth and we were able to see its ivory-colored baleen. A very rare sight!
In addition, we’ve spotted juvenile grays making their way south. Just like human teenagers, juvenile grays tend to have a heightened sense of fun. We watched juveniles roll on their backs at the surface to get a better look at the dolphins playing around them.
Dolphins are a common sight off the coast of San Diego, and they have not disappointed our passengers so far. We’ve seen small family groups of bottlenose dolphins close to San Diego Bay, larger groups of Pacific white-sided dolphins fishing, as well as a few super-pods of more than 500 common dolphins.
It is spectacular to hear these super pods over our brand new hydrophone. This year, we are the only whale watching boat in San Diego that broadcasts the underwater sounds of whales and dolphins live over our speaker system.
Overall the season is off to a fantastic start, and we can’t wait to see what next week brings.