Weekly Whale Watching Report

By Caitlin Scully, Birch Aquarium whale naturalist

Birch Aquarium naturalists witnessed this juvenile gray whale breaching during a whale-watching excursion in January 2010. Photo by Caitlin Scully.

January 25-31

The week after the big storm turned out to be quite interesting.  Early in the week we got news that a dead humpback whale had been spotted off the coast of San Diego. Our whale-watching cruises did not venture to see it, but had we gone, we may have seen some of the ocean’s top predators in action: Southern California species of oceanic sharks such as great whites, makos, thresher, blues, and oceanic white tips.

As for living whales, we had our record whale-sighting day this week. On Sunday, we saw 28 whales in one day! All were gray whales. Some were in small groups making their way down to the lagoons, some were mothers and calves, and many were juveniles. Juvenile grays have been a common sight the last few weeks. Many adult whales have made it down to the lagoons – they are in more of a rush to give birth and to mate. On the contrary, juvenile grays are no longer accompanied by their mother and are not of reproductive age and size, which occurs between six and 11 years old.

Birch Aquarium naturalists spotted a unique whale with distinct, uncharacteristic, upturned tail flukes during a whale-watching excursion in January 2010. Photo by Caitlin Scully.

With increased numbers of juveniles we have also witnessed more breaches. This season has been record breaking with the amount of breaching grays we have seen. On Saturday we saw one juvenile breach four times just outside of San Diego Bay! It was great.

We saw a unique individual this week. One adult gray had distinct, uncharacteristic, upturned tail flukes. This whale would be great to study, as it is easily recognizable. In the world of cetacean (whales and dolphins) research, identifying individuals is incredibly difficult. These animals spend most of their life underwater, and when they reach the surface, they show themselves for a precious few seconds.

Cetacean researches use the notches and “nics” on the flukes and dorsal fin to identify individuals. Many researchers have massive stores of identification photos to sort through in order to identify a single whale or dolphin. Why do they bother? Well, it is important to understand the movements of different animals in regards to migration, feeding habits, and seasonal patterns. I am very curious to know if any other gray whale researchers have kept track of this distinctive gray whale.

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego