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Richard Buffum

Are We Forcing the Whales to Take the Long Way Home?

March 03, 1985|RICHARD BUFFUM

I think that Capt. Charles Melville Scammon, who in 1857 discovered the major breeding grounds of the gray whale in Baja California, would have understood the curious behavior of today's leviathans as they approach the west end of Santa Catalina Island.

Volunteer observers from the American Cetacean Society, manning an observation station on this wind-swept, lonely headland, have noted some interesting behavior. Most of the whales seen off the west end appear to choose to swim down the Pacific, or windward, side of the island. Those that end up on the San Pedro Channel side are exhibiting some strange behaviors, such as breaching, swimming in circles and suddenly changing direction.

Terry Martin, the Catalina Conservancy's naturalist, speculates in a news letter, "It seems as if the whales on the inside route feel uncomfortable with their choice and are attempting to orient themselves. In fact, most of these whales eventually retrace their path and end up taking the the Pacific side route. These observations may give scientists insight into how whales navigate."

Scammon, for whom the breeding ground lagoon in Sebastian Vizcaino Bay was named, indicates in his book "The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America and the American Whale Fishery" (1874) that whales have long memories. Writing of the California shore-whaling stations, of which there were 11 between San Diego and Half Moon Bay, he says that "this particular branch of whaling is rapidly dying out, owing to the scarcity of the animals which now visit the coast; and even these have become exceedingly difficult to approach."

The reason was that the migrating California grays, particularly, along with humpbacks, finbacks and sulpherbottoms (blue), were being driven farther out to sea by the threat of the small whaling boats, sail and oar powered, launched from the beaches.

Whales, although generally benign creatures, are wary of man and his machines. Surely, the grays, on their long voyage from the Bering Sea to the warm lagoons of Baja California, are bothered by vessels watching and pursuing them. Martin reports that observers have seen several encounters between boats and whales, some of which "have bordered on harassment, and vessel registration numbers are being recorded in those instances."

It is unlawful to harass marine mammals by running a vessel too close, cutting off their progress or intervening between calf and mother, for instance. Yet the psychological line, if I may be permitted conjecture from a whale's viewpoint, between legal harassment and disturbing influences is negligible. It's simply a matter of degree. All encounters with aggressive men and their machines are to be minimized or avoided.

Thus, says the whale, I must change established migration routes, break old habits and travel farther out to sea beyond Catalina, where man ventures less. How would you like to be followed by strange boats? It would make you nervous, wouldn't it?

The west end whale observation station is a cooperative project of the Catalina Conservancy and the Cetacean Society. By counting the numbers of grays that approach Catalina and comparing results with counts made at other observation posts, such as at Marineland and San Clemente Island, researchers hope to arrive at an estimation of how many whales make this yearly migration.

Martin, heading the west end program, says this year's partial data suggests that many whales, including some juveniles, are farther off shore than previously expected. Further evaluation of the data will show whether there's any support for the hypothesis that a large percentage of grays using the seaward route to Baja are mature adults as opposed to younger individuals seen near the mainland coast, he says.

My guess is that the older folks know best, and they're advising the youngsters to take the more peaceful seaward course.

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