During the last 10 years, whale sightings in Southern California have been on the rise.
“Southern California is one of the best places in the world to spot gray whales and is arguably where whale watching eco-tourism was born,” Diane Alps of the American Cetacean Society (ACS) and whalesafe.org said.
For residents of Malibu, spotting whales is as easy as a stroll down the beach around Point Dume, a favorite spot among migrating gray whales, which can be seen right off shore in the surf. For a bigger adventure, a trip on one of the many whale watching boats in the area not only yields gray whale sightings, but boaters may also encounter blue whales, fin whales, humpback whales, minke whales, dolphins, sea lions and killer whales.
The lure of Southern California
Starting in 2005, there was a shift and more large marine animals made their way toward the coast during their migrations or for feeding.
“The ocean is dynamic and continually changing,” Alps described. “With these changes, favorable conditions for whales arise, such as nutrient-rich upwellings [colder waters from the depths, which “fertilize” the surface] and we are seeing more whales closer to our shores.”
Another advantage to the area is the existence of deep waters right off the coast, allowing whales to come very close to shore. Long Point (or Point Vicente) in Rancho Palos Verdes, Point Dume in Malibu and Point Conception, the northernmost point of the Santa Barbara Channel, are the three best headlands for whale sightings thanks to significant drop-offs in water depth.
A ‘gray’ area
Gray whales, by far the most common whale in local water, make a 10,000-mile round-trip journey every year as they migrate from the Arctic down to shelter in the warm lagoons in Mexico for the winter, which means they pass by the Southern Californian coast twice. In recent years, sightings have reached upwards of 4,000. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, there are approximately 21,000 gray whales, which were removed from the endangered species list in 1994.
Early December through the end of May is the best time to spot gray whales on their journeys off the shores of Malibu. Toward the end of the season, in April and May, calf/cow pairs can be seen making their way north, often keeping close to the shore to avoid predators.
When it comes to tracking whales along the shore, the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project has made it their mission since 1979. From December 1 through the end of May, volunteers set up at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center every day and count marine mammals making their way through the shore waters (check out acs-la.org for daily counts). During the 2015-16 season, volunteers recorded 1,430 southbound gray whales and 2,541 northbound gray whales, as well as 14 other marine mammals. These volunteers are diligent about tracking whales and keep a daily count at the viewing area and are happy to share information (and sightings) with visitors. If you’re lucky, you might join them in witnessing some spectacular events, such as the birth of a calf or, in a circle-of-life about face, killer whales hunting a calf.
“We’ve seen it all and there is no time that is better than another,” Joyce Daniels, a volunteer with the group for 23 years, said. “Whales migrate 24/7 during the season and we only spot what happens during daylight hours.”
Beyond the gray
While spotting a gray whale is easier thanks to known habits and migratory patterns, many other species of whales can be found in the water off Malibu. Year round, especially during the summer and fall, fins, blues, humpbacks and minkes have been spotted feeding in the area thanks to coastal upwellings. Blue whales, the largest animal in the world at up to 100 feet or more, follow krill, their main food source, which swim in huge swarms near the surface of plankton-rich waters — and it takes a lot of krill to fill a blue whale’s stomach, which can hold 2,200 pounds.
Fin whales, the second largest animal in the world, humpback whales and minke whales are more opportunistic and diverse eaters, but the same ideal conditions that create krill swarms also create all manner of goodies for these behemoths, like small fish, squid and crustaceans.
Killer whales are no strangers to Southern California water, but they are elusive creatures, and a sighting is worthy of celebration. To help with that are the half dozen species of playful dolphins in the water that are always eager to make an appearance, riding waves and wakes and leaping through the air. Sea lions, too, are abundant in the waters, but are more likely found lounging in the sun on shore.
Whether by land or by sea, Malibu offers a delightful array of marine animals both large and small at any time of the year. Next time you take a stroll on the beach, nature may just put on a spectacular show.