by Dr. Kayla Causey

On Thursday, we welcomed over 120 5th grade students from Canyon Vista Elementary aboard the Dana Pride. Our first trip left Dana Point Harbor at 8:23 a.m. in some pretty foggy conditions. This made our “sightability” somewhat low, meaning that it was possible we were missing whales or dolphins in the area because visibility was poor.

Under normal conditions, we would not conduct a research trip in fog like this. Doing so would simply produce  unreliable data on the presence or absence of animals. But because these scholars had come out so early, we decided to take them out anyway in hopes that the fog would clear. During our trip, the tide was moving in, and the sea surface temperature was 61 degrees (see Cover Sheet below for more info).

We headed offshore and stumbled upon a pod of common dolphins  in about 80 fathoms of water. The scholars really enjoyed watching the dolphins bowride and play in the boat wake. We didn’t stay with the dolphins long — we really wanted to do our best to find a gray whale.

Capt. Tommy took us in to shallower waters just off the Dana Point Headlands. We thought we might stop by the navigational aid/buoy and show the scholars the sea lions that often haul out there. But that wasn’t the only reason we headed to this area. The bluffs that make up Dana Point seem to be an important navigation point, not just for mariners, but for migrating gray whales. It’s not uncommon to see gray whales traveling through this corridor, just outside of the kelp beds. It’s also not uncommon for them to linger outside the kelp beds here, interacting with other whales, or potentially feeding. One of the mysteries of gray whales that scientists wish to solve is if and where they feed during their migration. Some anecdotal evidence (evidence based on individual people’s observations rather than scientific data) suggests that this area off of the headlands may be one such place where gray whales have the opportunity to feed.

Sure enough – as we approached the bell buoy, we saw a blow. A whale! We were so lucky to have found one in the dense fog. And to make matters even better, this whale didn’t seem to be going anywhere. It circled the area, making several long dives. As we were watching this whale, Capt. Tommy mentioned to me how he had seen whales doing the same thing in this spot, and he’d seen them surface with mud in their mouth. We watched this whale for 35 minutes, and it stayed in the area the entire time. We were only in about 12 fathoms of water (72 feet).  Its deep dives averaged 5 min. 7 sec., much longer than the whales we had observed traveling up or down the coast. It also didn’t take many breaths at the surface between these long dives (median breaths at surface = 1). When whales are traveling, they usually take 2-4 short breaths before a longer submergence.

As we watched this whale, two other whales passed outside of us, heading up the coast. We saw two other whales courting just down the coast. Whatever its purpose, this area of kelp beds off the headlands seems to be really popular among the gray whales. It will be important for us to continue documenting our observations here.

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