Weekly Whale Watching Report

By Caitlin Scully, Birch Aquarium whale naturalist

January 11-17

We had yet another great week of whale watching aboard the Marietta. Mid-January brought warm weather, calm seas, and a consistent flow of southbound gray whales.  Migrating grays were not the only spectacular site – we saw common dolphins, pacific white-sided dolphins, and Mola mola!

Mola mola. Courtesy of NOAA

What is a Mola mola, you ask? Also known as an ocean sunfish, a Mola mola is a large oceanic fish that looks like a fish head with fins on the top and bottom. The largest Mola mola ever recorded was 10 feet long and weighed 4,927 pounds! These animals are not strong swimmers; they drift with the currents to find their primary food of jellies. One of our favorite facts to share with guests on the whale cruises is that a Mola mola is one of the few types of fish that are unable to close their mouths. They are definitely a unique and exciting encounter on the Pacific!

In regards to our gray whales, we were lucky to witness more breaches this week. This is a wonderful treat; breaches are rare and exciting. Lately, we have been seeing adult whales breach while in groups. It is likely that these whales were “flirting” on their way down to the birthing and breeding lagoons in Baja California.

Another great encounter was spotting a mother and calf. Sometimes, mother grays with young calves are skittish around boats. If a mother whale begins to push her calf away from a boat, dives deep and surfaces in a different direction, or begins to get agitated, we know she does not want us to spend time near her and we move on to find other whales. However, this mother remained calm and we were able to follow her at a distance for nearly an hour! The calf was quite small; we guess it was about one week old.

We also saw more common dolphins, pacific white-sided dolphins, and bottlenose dolphins. There must be lots of bait fish about two miles out of San Diego Bay because we see the white-sided dolphins fishing nearly every day. Overall this was another good week out on the water.

A Navy ship and gray whale pass each other near San Diego Bay. Photo by Caitlin Scully

January 18-24

This blog entry will be shorter than usual, as winter’s El Niño event brought some of the strongest storms Southern California has seen in the last decade. Our cruises do not run during storms.

El Niño occurs when seawater temperature is unusually high along the entire Equatorial Pacific Ocean. This is atypical; usually the Eastern Equatorial Pacific has cool water.  El Niño affects the entire Pacific Ocean. Locally, El Niño events cause increased storms and rainfall.

This week, the ocean was too rough to venture out of San Diego Bay and the rain was record breaking. The gray whales were still migrating tenaciously southward through the storm – they have to make it to the lagoons! We were finally able to cruise out of the Bay on Sunday and witnessed gray whales continue to migrate.

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego