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The Southland's Other Winter Spectacle: Cavorting Cetaceans in Coastal Waters

January 12, 2006|Pete Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Thar she blows!

Finally. Whale-watching season officially began, as it always does, on the day after Christmas. But many of the leviathans chose to spend the holiday season at home, in and around the Bering Sea, feasting on amphipods.

Ice was slow to form over the region, delaying the 6,000-mile migration to Baja California, but the journey is underway and sightings locally are picking up. And not surprisingly, given the late start, some of the mother whales are traveling with calves.

On Saturday in Monterey, researchers counted four cow-calf pairs, a high number that far north. The American Cetacean Society's gray whale census project on the Palos Verdes Peninsula has counted six cow-calf pairs since it began monitoring activity Dec. 1.

"It can make them a lot more vulnerable" than if the births occurred in Baja California's tranquil lagoons, said project director Alisa Schulman-Janiger. "They have to stop 10 to 12 times a day to nurse, and in rough weather that can be an ordeal."

It would seem an ordeal regardless: Calves drink the equivalent of 200 glasses of milk a minute, feed in 30-second intervals as they come up for air and often change sides while mom tries to remain stationary with her tail arched upward.

In any event, these next few weeks should be lively off the Southland coast. Census project volunteers tallied 18 gray whales Saturday, their biggest day yet, and the season total through Monday was 98. Also spotted were common dolphins, Risso's dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, harbor seals, California sea lions, two breeching humpback whales, a minke whale and a sperm whale.

Sightings of California gray whales should increase quickly now. Based on 20 years of data, the southbound migration peaks Jan. 18 in the Los Angeles area.

The northbound migration peaks March 13. Most of the whales sighted at that point are impregnated females or adult males, driven by hunger to get home as quickly as they can.

"Once the romance is done, they get more energy," Schulman-Janiger said. "The moms with calves come five or six weeks later. They stay in the lagoons to fatten their calves with blubber for the long migration north."

And with predatory killer whales lurking in the offshore canyons, especially near Monterey, that trip is no holiday.

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