COAST CITIES — 10, 15, 20 — the number just kept getting higher. With each gray whale counted off the coast of San Diego, the excitement rose another notch among a crowd of 100 tourists and locals on the boat.
Spouts shot water into the air and large fins bobbed above the surface. Experienced whale watchers aboard had never seen anything like it — or at least on that scale.
“The experience was incredible, once-in-a-life time,” said Melissa Galety, a naturalist with San Diego Whale Watch. “It was hard to contain ourselves.”
All told, crewmembers last week logged an estimated 23 gray whales Jan. 21, making it possibly the largest pod ever seen in Southern California. Prior to this, Galety said the tour’s highest whale count ever was 12 or so. Most pods aren’t bigger than two or three.
The rare occurrence was the icing on the cake for a whale-watching season that’s been one of the best in memory.
The Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society, the only group to keep track of whales in Southern California every day during whale season from sunup to sundown, has recorded 644 southbound sightings as of Feb. 4. That’s more than they’ve seen at this point in the season in 16 years. For comparison, at the same time last year, the society logged 588 whales, while previous years hovered around 300.
The society has kept watch since early December off the coast of Point Vicente. Once the whales are seen in Point Vicente, there’s a good shot they’ll continue to hug the coastline and later pop up in San Diego.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a board member with the society, alerted others in the tight-knit whale community to keep their eyes peeled after she saw the 23-whale pod. Sure enough, the next day they arrived in San Diego waters.
“I’m glad I was able to share the information,” Janiger said. “The sightings inspired a lot of people.”
From the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, more than 70 volunteers from the society uses spotting scopes and binoculars to whale watch. Some dutifully scan the coast every day, while others give a few hours of their time each week. They’re motivated by the activity’s “therapeutic nature,” among other reasons, Janiger said.
Every year, more than 21,000 gray whales make their way from north of Alaska to Baja California, where the females give birth to calves. They venture back up the coast in the spring. Janiger said it’s not exactly clear why more whales have been spotted so far this season. There are a few possibilities, however.
Last year, the society noted more calves than usual. When migrating to Mexico, whales follow three different routes. Calves and their mothers typically prefer the route that’s closest to the coast, because there are more bays and coves to protect them from predators, according to Janiger.
Also, Janiger said the water up north last year started freezing earlier than normal, causing the whale migration to start earlier. As a result, there’s a chance the number of whales passing through Southern California already peaked. If that’s the case, southbound whale counts will likely taper off faster in the coming weeks than previous years. While whales generally come in pulses, Janiger said there was a steady number throughout January.
Kate Jirik, a naturalist with La Jolla’s Birch Aquarium, said some believe the high number of sightings could be a sign of a healthier whale population this season. But that could be a stretch. The whales detected on the coast are only a fraction of the population, she said.
“It could just mean there are more traveling along the coast,” Jirik said.
In any case, Jirik said she said the “last few weeks have been very interesting.”
Researchers aren’t the only ones who have enjoyed the strong whale season. Businesses have benefited, too.
On average, San Diego Whale Watch reported an extra 20 people each day in January on its tour boat.
Ryan Nunnally, a sales associate with Helgren’s Sportfishing and Harbor Cruises in Oceanside, said the number of people frequenting whale cruises was pretty comparable with last year’s figure in early January.
But with the word getting out about the robust season, business really picked up in the last few weeks.
“We’re seeing more of a demand,” Nunnally said, adding that the whale sightings have been consistent in the last month.