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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS

Migrating Whales Are Out of Sight

February 09, 2001|PETE THOMAS

It's as much spectator sport as it is spectacle, and with the annual gray whale migration having reached its version of halftime, local landing operators are hoping for a much better showing when the blubbery mammals change direction and head for home.

"How has it been? Terrible. The worst ever by far," bemoaned Don Ashley, owner of Pierpoint Landing and Marina Sportfishing, both in Long Beach. "Some of it was because of weather but . . . even last week when it was 70-80 degrees with great visibility, it was still tough. . . . What's saving us is that we're seeing lots of porpoise and lots of dolphin."

Farther south, off San Diego, the migration of whales from the Bering and Beaufort seas to Baja California's balmy lagoons has been only slightly more evident.

"We've seen whales on virtually every trip, but it definitely is no lead-pipe cinch," said Rick Podolak, captain of the Holiday out of Point Loma Sportfishing. "Just when we see a bunch and think it's ready to peak it falls back again.

"For us, the southbound migration usually peaks during the third week of January, where every boat gets on a different pod, but that has been far from the case this season. We've all been ganging up on one pod or on a couple of pods, because that's all there is."

From their cliff-top vantage on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, volunteers for the Gray Whale Census Project had recorded only 261 southbound grays as of Thursday morning.

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director of the project, said there probably will be enough stragglers to avoid the record low of 301 set 10 years ago. But it won't come close to the 1984 record high of 1,291 gray whales passing the peninsula en route to Baja, where the leviathans go to calve and cavort.

Theories for the spotty sightings this season vary.

One has to do with the unseasonably warm late-fall weather in the whales' home waters, possibly delaying the migration. Another has to do with a recent sharp decline in productivity in those same waters, which has led to fewer pregnancies, and thus, fewer animals feeling an urge to move to the protected lagoons. (Sightings of so many undernourished whales on the northbound migration last year give credence to this theory.)

Still another is that many of the whales, possibly because of shifts in the current, changes in temperature or availability of food, simply have chosen an offshore route, well beyond range of the local fleets.

Last Saturday, for example, an extended trip aboard the Monte Carlo out of 22nd Street Landing in San Pedro produced sightings of nine gray whales, five of them being spotted two-thirds of the way to Santa Catalina Island and three around its west end.

"There's nothing wrong with the migration," Schulman-Janiger said. "It's just that most of them seem to be traveling offshore."

This isn't to say that the local whale-watching scene has been entirely uneventful.

An abundance of squid has attracted an unusually high number of large Risso's dolphins close to shore.

On Sunday, the Voyager out of Redondo Sportfishing was involved in a close encounter with two fin whales (second only to blue whales in size), along with pods of bottlenose and common dolphin. And on Monday, a sperm whale and a humpback whale were spotted by census project volunteers.

As for the grays, Schulman-Janiger is predicting a rally in the coming weeks.

"On the way up the preferred route tends to be closer to shore, especially among females with calves," she said. "They're the ones who will be choosing an inshore route and the protection of the coast."

*

As part of its 30th anniversary celebration, Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro is running "Complete Whalewatch" trips Sunday and March 25. The trips, which cost $16, include a slide show/lecture at 10 a.m., then a two-hour voyage "in search of whales, dolphins, sea lions and sea birds." Reservations are required and can be made by calling (310) 548-7562. . . . The American Cetacean Society's Los Angeles chapter is conducting a "Floating Fiesta" March 17 aboard the Monte Carlo. Noted whale expert John Heyning is expected on board for the nine-hour excursion to Catalina and back. Details: (562) 437-4376.

SALTWATER NOTES

* Local: The Southland's hottest spot, which since has cooled considerably along with the weather, has been an area called the Rockpile near the Coronado Islands, just south of the border. Large schools of 10- to 15-pound yellowtail were being encountered by San Diego-based party boats until the big wind came Tuesday afternoon.

John Yamate, manager of Seaforth Sportfishing, would not speculate on what impact the extended cold snap might have, but guessed that the fantastic bite last weekend into the week had something to do with the onset of foul weather. "Maybe they knew what was coming," he said, explaining that fish activity often increases in the days before a storm.

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