Whale Watching: Always a Surprise

By Birch Aquarium Naturalist Kate Jirik

Birch Aquarium at Scripps and Flagship Cruises & Events are celebrating 15 years as whale watching tour partners. You would think we’d seen it all, but gray whales continue to surprise us.

We are just a month into the gray whale watching season, and we already have some exciting notes to pass along…

One afternoon, a gray whale turned sharply and approached a floating patch of kelp. Gray whales often swim along the edges of Point Loma’s kelp forests, but it’s rare to see them investigating drifting kelp farther out from shore. This gray whale rolled onto its side, turning the kelp over with its broad tail – perhaps it was playing, or perhaps enjoying how the kelp felt on its skin.

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This gray whale calf is very young, probably just a day or two old. It is resting on it’s mothers back – can you see her light gray flukes below the calf? Photo by Caitlin Scully

Additionally, several mother gray whales and their calves have been seen traveling south with a second adult whale. In one instance, a calf swam ‘sandwiched’ between the two adults. Any benefit to the calf—whether to protect it or aid its swimming—is unknown, but this behavior is not seen often. Behaviors like these make every tour unique.

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The characteristic heart shaped blows of gray whales. Photo by Caitlin Scully

Last week, I met a couple who has been coming whale watching with Birch Aquarium and Flagship every year for the past 10 years. It’s one of their winter traditions. When asked why whale watching holds special appeal for them, they said it was simple: whales inspire them.

This couple’s feelings likely resonate with many people. Whales speak to our deep relationship with the sea, and in San Diego, we have wonderful opportunities to witness gray whales on their epic migration. The whales navigate from Alaska to Mexico, join with mates, give birth to calves, and rest. Each winter the journey is renewed, inspiring and reconnecting us to the beautiful and challenging world we share with these animals.

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego