Research compiled by a pair of local marine biologists has found that dolphins and whales are feeding more than ever in the Santa Monica Bay, possibly due to changes in ocean conditions and more prey.
The observations were made by Maddalena Bearzi and Charlie Sayan, a wife and husband team that has monitored ocean life nearly every week across Santa Monica Bay for more than 15 years.
In December 2013, the pair spotted approximately 370 whales in the bay, doubling December 2012 observations.
“I’ve never seen such an abundance,” said Bearzi, co-founder of Marina del Rey-based Ocean Conservation Society (OCS). “I got a little bit concerned with all these animals in the bay. People say we have a population boom, but it’s not the case. It’s a combination of different factors that brought this shift in presence in these animals, oceanographic conditions or more at play.”
The problem with dolphins, Bearzi notes, is they tend not to avoid polluted areas, feeding in areas with high stormwater run-off.
Bearzi recounted her experiences at sea in her third book “Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of the Field Biologist,” published in 2012, and is now working on a fourth book. She believes her studies prove bottlenose dolphins use Santa Monica Bay as a feeding ground and spend a long time in the area. Roughly the same 300 to 400 bottlenose dolphins have been swimming up and down the coast, according to the researcher.
“Sometimes we see the same individual over two to three four-month periods over the years,” she said.
The most common dolphins in Santa Monica Bay are bottlenose, short beaked and long beaked, but OCS occasionally sees Pacific white-sided and Risso’s dolphins too. In 2013, Bearzi said they catalogued a lot of blue whales, gray whales, fin whales, humpback whales, minke whales, sperm whales, killer whales, harbor seals and sea lions coming close to shore.
There are three canyons in Santa Monica Bay, which, due to the wind-driven act of upwelling moving nutrients to the water surface, brings a plethora of ocean life to the area to feed. For instance, Bearzi said blue whales love returning to the Dume Canyon area.
The scientists follow the coastline beyond Malibu, and often see a recognizable dorsal fin or two in a school from previous encounters.
“They’re like human fingerprints,” said Bearzi. “They are part of a large population from Baja up to San Francisco, and some to Oregon.”
Currently, OCS is examining skin lesions and deformities on local dolphins and whales, and is comparing them to how environmental factors, like pollution in Santa Monica Bay, are related and how they affect human health. They consider the study the first of its kind on the west coast.
“This is the same fish we eat but they eat in a lot bigger quantity than we do,” she said. “These pollutants are in their bodies.”
Bearzi added that, while it’s good more public attention is brought to local marine life in order to better protect them, when there is a beached or stranded mammal — and quite a few beached whales have been found along Malibu’s shores in the recent years — people get too close and create a disturbance for the animal.
“I get concerned people don’t know about the regulations,” she said. “They are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”
It costs OCS between $100,000 and $200,000 annually to keep its research schedule afloat; it has received funding and equipment aid from the Santa Monica Bay Restoration Commission, Save Out Coast—Malibu Dolphin Watch Foundation, the Malibu Foundation and others. Bearzi adds her team is currently studying the fishing community in Malibu, specifically the recreational fishing community and its conflicts with local sea lions.
For more information on OCS, visit www. oceanconservation.org.