Whale Watching: Heading North

Gray whale tail. Photo: Audrey Evans

By Bekah Logan, naturalist

We’re halfway through the season, and the whales are starting to head back north!

The migration seemed to slow for a few weeks, and stormy weather kept us out of the water for a few days. However, the whales are back off our coast in full force.

We’ve begun seeing juveniles, adult males, and newly pregnant females begin the long journey back to their home in the Arctic’s Bering and Chukchi seas. This pattern is expected. After the initial migration to Mexico, males and females mate and pregnant females give birth. New mothers linger longer in Baja’s lagoons to make sure their calves build enough strength for the journey. We should begin seeing those pairs in mid-March.

Our whale watching cruises are venturing further west to find whales now that they’ve started home. The trip takes them about 100 days, and their route back tends to be a few miles further away from the coastline.

A gray whale herd. Photo: Audrey Evans

Gray whales belong to the baleen suborder, Mysticeti. The word comes from the Greek word for “mustache,” a likely nod to baleen’s “hairy” appearance. Instead of teeth, Mysticetes have baleen plates that they use for filter feeding. Baleen is made of keratin, the same protein in human nails and hair. Gray whales are benthic (ocean-bottom) suction feeders. They have about 180 short baleen plates along their upper jaw, used to suck up mouthfuls of Arctic mud filled with small creatures.

Groups of Mysticetes are called “herds,” unlike the toothed whale suborder, Odontoceti, which travels in groups called “pods.” During our whale watching cruises, larger herds of gray whales have been more prevalent; some cruises have spotted herds of four to five whales! Pods of the lesser-seen Risso’s dolphin are also out and about. One cruise was lucky enough to see these dolphins breach.

Whale watching season ends April 15. Please join us for one of our twice-daily cruises.

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego