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Festival Shows Colorful Side of the Gray Whale

February 17, 1986|PENELOPE MOFFET

"These guys, they are not dainty feeders, you would not want to be seen in an elegant restaurant with them," said Mike Bursk, showing slides of gray whales during his Saturday lecture at Dana Point's Festival of the Whales.

"They can suck in a couple hundred pounds of water in one swallow" before using their tongues as "pistons" to push out mud and water and trap their food--crustaceans, fish or squid--on their teethlike baleen, Bursk said.

A field technician for the National Marine Fisheries Service, Bursk, who lives in San Clemente, has studied whales since 1978. Less than two weeks before his lecture he returned from a whale-studying trip off the Monterey Peninsula and through the Channel Islands.

Whales 'No Dummies'

The average adult gray whale measures 45 feet in length, Bursk said. They spend summers in the Arctic before journeying south. "Gray whales are no dummies," Bursk said. "They probably don't migrate by choice (but) because they have to get out of there. . .because it's too cold. They come down, with the rest of the world, to Southern California." Around October many whales begin the 6,000-mile-long journey from the Arctic to the warm lagoons of Baja California, he said, passing Southern California beaches en route.

The 14th annual whale festival was planned to coincide with the "heart" of the local whale-watching season, according to Harry Helling, festival director and education director of the Orange County Marine Institute. The four-weekend event, organized by the institute, is sponsored by the Dana Point Harbor Assn.

Bad weather put a damper on opening-day festivities, with 16-foot waves canceling planned free rides on Navy patrol boats. However, most other educational events proceeded as scheduled.

Gray whales are bottom feeders, Bursk told his audience. "Picture a cow in a field. They literally have to get down there and graze," he said. Whales are either left-sided or right-sided--just as people are left-handed or right-handed--and "you can tell which by the side the barnacles are on," Bursk said. The favored side will be cleaner because that skin is perpetually scraped against the ocean floor when the whale feeds, he added.

12-Foot Babies

Pregnant females are the first to leave the Arctic each fall, Bursk said, so they can give birth in the Baja California lagoons. Newborn gray whales may measure 12 feet and weigh 1,500 pounds, and by the time they're 3 months old their gunmetal black skin has turned somewhat mottled, and barnacles have begun growing, he said.

Gray whales have good eyesight but underwater visibility is often poor, Bursk said. (Gray whales sometimes stick their heads straight up out of the water, to get a better look around.) Their hearing is acute. The sound of outboard motors often attracts them, and underwater tapings have indicated that "apparently, some have tried to mimic outboard motor" noise when approaching a boat, Bursk said. Twice, on past expeditions, whales have come up behind skiffs and closed their mouths over outboard motors, hanging there and "rolling their eyes and quivering," Bursk said.

"As you study them (whales), they decide to study you," Bursk said. "Friendly whales have opened a whole new avenue for us into hands-on research." In 1979, he said, the first tagging experiments were begun with whales, when "satellite transceivers about the size and weight of a car battery" were hung on a few whales. Those often fell off, he said.

Today, when gray whales are tagged, an arrow with "a radio tag the size of an AA battery" is shot into blubber just below the whale's two blowholes, Bursk said.

"We don't think they really feel pain in that blubber area," Bursk added. The whales flinch slightly when the arrow hits but immediately resume their swimming pattern, he said, and the arrow is made of a "highly corrosible" metal that disintegrates and falls off within a few weeks.

"I justify it to myself as being like a tetanus shot, sometimes that might sting for a moment but ultimately might do the animal a greater good" through helping people understand and appreciate whales, Bursk said.

On the Channel Islands whale-studying excursion, Bursk said, marine scientists tagged 10 whales and discovered that they didn't linger near the islands, as local rangers had suspected. The scientists also learned that the tagged whales' night swimming speed is the same as their daytime speed of 4 or 5 m.p.h. (This assumption had recently been questioned by conservationists who thought gray whale population estimates based on interpolation of daytime sightings were too high. About 20,000 gray whales are believed to exist today, based on 10,000 daytime sightings on a recent migration, according to Bursk.)

Migration Hugs Coast

"From what we saw there, the animals didn't hang around," Bursk said. "They go right down through the Channel Islands and out the other end."

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