One of the advantages of living in Southern California is that despite the huge urban areas, it doesn’t take long to get into the wilderness. Within an hour drive of downtown Los Angeles it is possible to be up in mountain wilderness. Drive a little longer, the open desert. But next to this metropolis is the biggest wilderness in the world, the Pacific Ocean.
While most of the coastal wetlands have been destroyed and filled in and our beaches are neatly groomed beds of sand, quickly off-shore we are no more than visitors.
Aboard the Ocean Explorer, I left Newport Harbor on a whale watching trip through Davey’s Locker. It was a sunny calm day but as we headed to open waters a fog bank enveloped us. This made it a little trickier to spot the whales. Usually the first signs of whales is their spout, which blends in nicely with the fog.
After an half hour we found a pair of gray whales (Echrichtius robustus), swimming north. These whales grow up to 49 feet long and can weigh up to 35 tons. Gray whales make an over 5000 mile migration from the northern Alaskan waters to the lagoons of Baja California. From December through March they can be found off the Southern California coast, at first heading south and then north as winter comes to an end. With a round trip of over 10,000 miles, it is the longest migration of any mammal.
The species of barnacles found on the gray whales grow only on them. When a gray whale calf is born, the larva of the barnacles transfer onto the calf to continue their life cycle.
In the warmer months other whales can be found off the coast – including humpback, fin, and blue whales. Dolphins can be seen year around.
But sadly, it seem anytime we looked at the water, there was trash floating by – a plastic cup, an old wrapper, a sheet of paper. The rainy winter didn’t help as the often dry streams and flood channels became swift flowing rivers carrying all the accumulated litter out to sea. Of course, the fault doesn’t lie with the weather. All creatures have an impact on the environment and when natural systems are out of order, the results can be disastrous. And no other creature matches the impact of humans. Few creatures though have the awareness of their impact and can make choices to mitigate it, to bring themselves back into balance with nature. With humans, it not really a question of can we do it, but are we willing to do it.
Gray whales were once found in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The Atlantic population went extinct in the seventeenth century from overhunting. The population in the western Pacific almost disappeared and is still struggling to survive. But the eastern Pacific population, once overhunted itself, is healthy, and possibly expanding as there have been rare sightings of gray whales in the Atlantic waters. Industrial hunting of gray whales is now banned, though some are still hunted by aboriginal groups.
Heading back into the harbor, we past a buoy that served as a sea lion respite. A group of California sea lions (Zalophus californianus), laid on the buoy passing the day. Sea lions differ from seals in several ways. Two visual differences are sea lions can rotate their hind flippers forward making them a little more agile on land compared to seals. Also, sea lions have a visible ear. An interesting little tidbit learned from the ship’s captain is when the waters are rougher, the sea lions won’t use the buoy to rest because, like us, they can become sea sick. Who knew?
To book a whale watching trip with Davey’s Locker go to www.newportwhales.com. The crew of their boats are experience and knowledgeable. More information about gray whales and other sea mammals found off the California coast can be found on their website.
All photos by Alan Starbuck, except to noted