Gray whales again, for the first time

In Georgia, bird watching kept me in touch with the seasons. The winter woods near my house were dominated by the high trill of Pine Warblers. When Swamp Sparrows fattened up for migration and cleared out of the fields around the banding station where I volunteered, I knew more colorful summer residents were on the way. Birds whose existence I had almost forgotten would emerge in the spring to test my memory.

It takes time and practice to start noticing when species appear and disappear from your midst, but once you’re clued in, little presents start showing up. “Ah, I see it’s time again for ___.”

Being a recent transplant to Santa Cruz, I don’t know which bird species mark changing seasons on the West Coast. But tuning in to migration can be as helpful for settling into a new place as learning how to pronounce weird street names or finding where to get a good burger.

Photo by jpmckenna, via Flickr Creative Commons

So for anyone else who is spending a first December on the coast: Now is the time to start looking for gray whales, migrating south from their feeding grounds in the Arctic seas to mating grounds along the Baja peninsula. Keep looking until the end of February.

This migration, the longest of any mammal, is part of a remarkable two-year breeding cycle.

As a female gray whale, your two-year plan would be:

• Swim 6,000 miles south to mate in a lagoon
• Swim 6,000 miles north, now pregnant, to get something to eat.
• Swim 6,000 miles south, now hungry and pregnant, to deliver.
• Swim 6,000 miles north, no longer pregnant but now very hungry, then start over.

Another remarkable thing about this migration is how close the whales stay to the beach – the entire population passes within three miles of the Monterey coastline. This is good news for those of us on the shore. But what are we looking for?

With birds, you can judge a species from body size, shape, or distinct plumage patterns: wing bars, eye rings, breast streaking, outer tail feathers. And songs are sometimes the best indicator of who’s flitting overhead.

For gray whales, coloring can be helpful – most have mottled white and gray skin, and much of their bodies are often covered in barnacles. They have no dorsal fin, just a series of little humps or “knuckles.” So look for a big gray cucumber cresting quietly, and occasionally flapping a deeply notched fluke. The Pacific Wildlife Foundation has a helpful diagram.

Illustration from 1874. Commercial whalers decimated gray whale populations in the late 1800s. (Image credit: P. Neumann / Wikimedia Commons)

Knowing about migration can also be an anchor in time – in the cyclical patterns that connect this year to last. I think the disruption of that cyclical lull is part of what makes environmental damage distressing. Fixed fishing gear and the disorienting effects of melted polar ice can skew the age-old cycles of the gray whale, a species that has rebounded from catastrophes ranging from the icing over of its feeding grounds in the Pleistocene era to near extinction at the hands of 18th century whalers. In 1994, it became the first marine animal to be removed from the endangered species list. It has endured dramatic transformations of the water around it. Maladjusted transplants, take note.

If you’re as awed as I am by the resilience of the gray whale, or if you’re just looking for some kind of anchor, you can check on recent sightings from the Monterey Bay Whale Watch and start your biannual whale watching tradition.

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