Taken at Dana Wharf Whale Watching ~ Dana Point

Report and Photo’s by Carla Mitroff – Edited by Deanna Hansen

About 70 students boarded the Dana Pride with Capt. Todd Mansur for our very first trip of the season. These young scholars had sightings of 9 southbound gray whales that were “snorkeling” and difficult to track, but we did see a couple show their flukes. Under overcast skies we had excellent visability and smooth seas. They also spotted a pod of 25 common dolphin heading up the coast that took a few minutes to enjoy some wake riding. We also saw a small group of Pacific White sided dolphin, around 6-8 before heading back to Dana Wharf. At the jetty we were greeted by Calif. Sea Lions. An overall great OCean Adventure with The Gulf of Catalina Gray Whale Preservation & Education Foundation.

Students ready for an ocean adventure
Students ready for an OCean Adventure
Getting ready to leave the dock

Getting ready to leave the dock

Just outside the harbor we spotted southbound gray whales
Just outside the harbor we spotted southbound gray whales

Here come the dolphin

Here come the dolphin

Observing a pod of 25 common dolphin

Observing a pod of 25 common dolphin

Common dolphin riding the boat wake

Common dolphin riding the boat wake

Observing a pod of 25 common dolphin

Observing a pod of 25 common dolphin

Southbound gray whale flukes

Southbound gray whale fluke

These young scholars will remember this day for the rest of their lives

A day these young scholars will remember

A great day had by all

A great day had by all

Cover of SC Times

A Classroom at Sea

by Staff on May 8, 2014 in EYE ON SC, News Headlines
Developing CUSD program aims to prepare students through lessons on gray whales and their ecosystem

Fourth- and fifth-grade students from Wood Canyon Elementary observe sea lions resting on a buoy off the coast of Dana Point. The students are a part of a Capistrano Unified School District program that aims to prepare them for the future using a new, gray whale-focused curriculum. Photo: Brian Park
Fourth- and fifth-grade students from Wood Canyon Elementary observe sea lions resting on a buoy off the coast of Dana Point. The students are a part of a Capistrano Unified School District program that aims to prepare them for the future using a new, gray whale-focused curriculum. Photo: Brian Park Story and photos by Brian Park

In the waters just outside of Dana Point Harbor, aboard the OCean Adventures catamaran, fourth- and fifth-grade students from a combination class at Wood Canyon Elementary School in Aliso Viejo were on the lookout for gray whales.

“Thar she blows!” one girl yelled.

“No, that’s nothing,” her observant classmate replied.

For months, the students had been preparing for their ocean excursion, a capstone reward and an opportunity to apply what they had learned about gray whales and their ecosystem in a fun ocean expedition.

But on this day, there were no gray whales sighted. Capt. Todd Mansur, lead naturalist for Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching, suspects they may have been avoiding boats or a few might have slipped past them into shallower waters.

“This isn’t SeaWorld,” Mansur said. “Nothing is penned in. We’re sponsored by Earth.”

The kids, though, were not taken back ashore without a show. They were told to remain quiet so as to not scare away sea lions basking on a buoy. Later, they screamed to their hearts’ content as a pod of dolphins swam beside their boat.

“The cuteness is killing me!” said the girl, who had earlier envisioned a whale.

Had they spotted a gray whale, the students would have been prepared. With binoculars, stopwatches to time breathing patterns and clipboards to mark down their observations, they were ready to contribute their part to an ongoing study of the whales’ annual migration, from cold Alaskan waters, past the California coastline and to warmer bays and lagoons off the Mexican coast.

The group was the last of 23 trips taken this migratory season by 52 participating classes from several schools in the Capistrano Unified School District. All of them took part in a program, launched last spring, that aims to apply new Common Core standards and STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) in classrooms.

By going deeper into subject matter—in this case, gray whales and their ecosystem—and drawing from those four disciplines, school officials hope to mold students into more creative problem solvers and prepare them for futures that will be more dependent on technology.

“Every learner remembers something more if they’ve actually done it, whether you’re fixing a tire or wiring a circuit,” said Elisa Slee, a teacher on special assignment, or TOSA, tasked to find new ways to implement STEM curriculum into CUSD classrooms. “There are many opportunities in STEM careers, and the way I see it, everyone should be well versed in STEM. It’s the vehicle for learning everything better because children are naturally curious.”

CUSD’s gray whale unit is not the only STEM-focused program that teachers have adopted.

As part of a program Slee helped organize, Advanced Placement environmental science students from Dana Hills High School take what they have learned during the school year, organize the material into lesson plans and present them to fourth-graders from Kinoshita Elementary School during a field trip at The Ecology Center in San Juan Capistrano. The older students, in teaching others, become expert in local environmental issues while the younger scholars learn practical, science-based lessons and solutions about their surrounding environment.


Capt. Todd Mansur, lead naturalist for Dana Wharf Whale Watching and board member of the Gray Whale Foundation, prepares students for their trip aboard the OCean Adventures catamaran.
Capt. Todd Mansur, lead naturalist for Dana Wharf Whale Watching and board member of the Gray Whale Foundation, prepares students for their trip aboard the OCean Adventures catamaran.
Many of the programs rely on support from local businesses and community organizations, like The Ecology Center. The gray whale unit would not be if it were not for The Gulf of Catalina Gray Whale Preservation and Education Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Dana Wharf co-owner Michael Hansen, Mansur and their staff.

Since the early ‘90s, Dana Wharf has welcomed CUSD students on field trips, but Hansen, Mansur and company recognized that students did not have the foundational knowledge to understand why they were looking for whales.

“Any time you can study an animal that’s coastal, that swims near your shoreline, you’re going to know how well you’re treating the local ecosystem,” Mansur said. “These animals are going to have the biggest impact from anything we do here because of our proximity.”

Mansur and the Gray Whale Foundation began going to classrooms, in CUSD and all over Southern California, to give presentations on why the students would be visiting Dana Point Harbor and what they should expect from their trip. In 2007, the foundation began developing a more formal curriculum, which would later spawn the district’s gray whale unit.

“(The trip) had to be an award. It had to be earned, first and foremost, by the teachers,” Mansur said. “If the teachers weren’t willing to teach the curriculum, it wasn’t going to work.”

The foundation reached out to CUSD, and district officials connected them with Slee, along with Nona Reimer and Paola Paz Soldan, teachers at Malcolm and Las Palmas elementary schools, respectively.

“One of the ways we can make a difference is to create partnerships, so there’s a synergy instead of competition,” Slee said.

The trio, working with the foundation, created a curriculum, complete with lesson plans and activities, for other willing teachers to adopt.

“If the teachers were doing the unit and were willing to attend the training, they could ask to have a free or subsidized field trip, funded by the Gray Whale Foundation,” Slee said. The entire unit, including the trip, costs about $60 per student, according to Mansur.

Using gray whales as the “flagship species,” the unit was designed to satisfy the goals of Common Core, known as the “4 C’s:” collaboration, critical thinking, communication and creativity. Activities also hit on the four elements of STEM and incorporate them across different subject matter. One lesson on feeding adaptions uses all four STEM elements by teaching students about baleen, the hair-like bristle gray whales and other toothless whales use to filter food from ocean water. Students designed and engineered their own baleen from materials, such as metal wands banded by rubber bands, to filter rice out of water. After testing their creations, students noted the results and improved on their designs.

“It’s a different way to integrate engineering, technology, science and mathematics,” Paz Soldan said. “The moment they get their hands on it, the depth of their understanding is much greater.”

The goal of STEM education, and Common Core, is to prepare students for higher education opportunities and a future workforce with ever-changing demands.

“Ten years ago, the technology we have today we never would have imagined. What’s down the line we don’t even know yet,” Paz Soldan said. “But if we get these kids interested today, to have a strong base, they’ll have a better concept … Just the fact that they’re exposed to new ways of thinking allows them to solve problems in new ways. They’re going to have to solve the problems we’re leaving them.”

For the foundation, the unit helps to meet their goal to foster “ocean-minded” citizens. Mansur said, eventually, he would like to see it fully adopted across CUSD and to other districts as well.

“I am positive as they see the success rate of this and the happiness of students, it’ll continue to grow,” Mansur said. “Passion is contagious. When you speak the word of ocean awareness, you have to remember the vast ocean. These kids are the stewards of our future.”

by Dr. Kayla Causey

Our last and final trip of the season was with the 3rd class from Wood Canyon Elementary. We took them out aboard the Ocean Adventure right after their peers had braved the morning winds. Fortunately, the conditions had calmed down a bit, and we were still hopeful that we could find a whale(s).

We left the dock around 11:24, in 55 degree water with the tide moving out. Our Beaufort State was back to a “2” and the white caps were mellowing out along with the winds. We headed up coast, around the Dana Point headlands to see if the conditions were even better on the other side of the bluffs. On our way, we stopped by the sea lions hauled out at the navigation buoy.

We didn’t see anything up the coast above the Point, so we decided our best bet might be to head down coast, now that conditions had calmed down. We searched and searched for any indication of a gray whale, but still had no luck. We finally saw a large pod of common dolphins traveling down the coast at around 12:23 (see the waypoint on our track below). The dolphins were traveling in about 18 fathoms, and doing their “typical” bow riding and wake surfing. We couldn’t stay with them long because we needed to head back to the dock if we were to make it there by 13:00. It was about this time that I realized we probably weren’t going to find a gray whale that day. I found myself feeling disappointed that our final trip of the season was so…anticlimactic. As much as the scientist-side of me knows that it’s still important data when we document the absence of gray whales, just as much as when we document their presence, the educator in me couldn’t help but feel like we were letting the scholars down by not finding a whale.

It was about the time that I’d convinced myself this was a failed day and that I should just go kick rocks when I overheard a young scholar say, “What is this? A dream come true?!” as he was watching common dolphins bow ride right below his feet. It woke me up a little and made me realize that this was probably the closest most of these students have ever been to a marine mammal. For some of them it was the first time they’d ever been on a boat out on the water (although most students count touring The Pilgrim replica or an aircraft carrier as “being on a boat”). I also realized that what I perceive as “typical” dolphin behavior is still really exciting, especially to these young scholars. For these students, this trip was a climactic end to a STEM unit on whales that they’d been studying in their class for the past several months. All these realizations were validated yet again when the students broke out in song… yes, in song… on our return trip to the docks. I mean really, does it get any better?

As we headed in, I had a chance to reflect on some of the moments we’ve shared with Capistrano Unified students this season. The false killer whales were amazing, of course, the spy-hopping gray whales wearing kelp necklaces were certainly unique… but what really sticks out in my mind are the individual students… the child with Asperger’s Syndrome who started off the trip terrified and in tears, yet came to life once we sighted dolphins and then whales… the boys who were so proud to share their knowledge of whales with me… the individual students who took on their role as researcher with the earnestness and gusto that I would expect from the next generation of marine scientists… the 5th grade girls who said they wanted to do what I do when they grow up…  As much as this season was a huge success in terms of data collection, it was more of a success because of the interactions we had with these scholars. We are proud of the experiences we’ve been able to provide them and hope that they’ve gained an appreciation for these amazing animals and the ocean as a result.

by Dr. Kayla Causey

Our second trip with Wood Canyon (on Tuesday) started off much like our first, with clear skies, and smooth seas… but as you can see from our cover sheet below, things quickly changed. About half an hour into our venture, the winds picked up, and our beaufort state dropped from a 2 (small, short wavelets) to a 4 (small waves becoming larger, fairly frequent foam crests). The white caps make it difficult to distinguish the blows of a whale or the splash of a dolphin from the chop caused by the wind. However, fortunately, before the winds took a turn for the worse, we were able to spot some common dolphins and give the scholars a chance to practice some data collection.

We spotted the dolphins at about 9:50 heading down the coast in 20 fathoms of water. There were approximately 200 individuals, and they enjoyed bow-riding and surfing in our boat wake. Check out the photo below of the leaping dolphin peaking up at us, shot by one of our volunteers Carla Mitroff! We stayed with the dolphins until shortly after 10:00, which unfortunately is about the time the weather got rough. We stuck it out, searching for gray whales, but we didn’t have any luck sighting them. The young scholars seemed to just enjoy being on the boat and playing in the wind and waves anyway!

by Dr. Kayla Causey

This week we welcomed three separate classes from Wood Canyon Elementary aboard the Ocean Adventure. The winds made the trips very exciting!

Our first class was Ms. Dockin’s 5th grade. These students were an excellent, attentive group of scholars, and it was a pleasure to have them aboard. We shoved off from the dock a little before 10:30 (the bus was running late, as things go) just after high tide, with a sea surface temp. of 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The water had cooled slightly from the weekend rain. We had smooth seas and clear skies, which made it easy to spot some dolphins fairly quickly.

We caught up to the common dolphins at 10:34 in about 25 fathoms of water. There were approximately 500 dolphins in this large pod, and they were spread out in “rank” formation, meaning swimming side by side. It appeared they were foraging or herding a school of fish for their next meal. The dolphins traveled up coast, and we stayed with them for about 16 minutes before circling back to search for a gray whale.

It’s the time of year when gray whale mom’s (called “cows”) pass through Dana Point with their newborn calves as they make their way back North to the Alaskan feeding grounds for the summer. Cow/calf pairs usually travel in shallow waters to avoid predators and to make nursing easier. So we made our way down the coast in shallower water, hoping to intercept a northbound pair. Sure enough, by 11:26, we spotted two spouts. Two gray whales, a cow and calf, were making their way up the coast, moving slowly through the kelp. The whales were in 7 fathoms (42 ft. of water) and moving slowly, at about 3.89 mph. We observed them for 5 breathing cycles. Their pattern of breathing was consistent with traveling behavior. They took an average of 2 breaths at the surface, making shallow short duration (~20 seconds) dives in between, before descending on a longer dive that lasted an average of 1 minute, 37 seconds. We noted that they slowed down at one point, and this also seemed to be their longest dive (2 minutes, 9 seconds).

We stayed with these whales until 11:40, at which point it was time to head back to the dock. It was great to have the opportunity to show the scholars a cow and her calf.

by Dr. Kayla Causey

We were so glad that we got to invite two classes from Viejo to come back out with the Gray Whale Foundation. Both classes had their original trips rescheduled due to weather. Ms. Borg’s class had made an attempt to come out with us, but because the weather was so poor, visibility was awful and it was impossible to see whether there were whales in the area. In addition, many students were feeling ill because of the conditions, and so we had to end that trip early. You can read more about that here.

So we felt it best to bring both classes back out and give them another shot at studying gray whales. And it was a success! We spotted a Gray Whale just outside of the Harbor! In fact, there were two gray whales – a cow and her calf. It was really exciting to show the kids a calf and describe the northbound-migration that moms and their newborns make. The behavioral differences are always striking as well. Whereas most of our sightings so far this season have occurred in an average depth of about 50 fathoms, this pair was in very shallow water — only 6 fathoms and moving more shallow as they hugged the coastline throughout the sighting. Cow/calf pairs remain in the shallow waters for protection and probably  because it makes for easier nursing.

This pair was moving very slowly (average speed was 4.45 mph during our ~30 min. sighting), and surfacing irregularly. Their average dive duration was 2 minutes, and they rarely spent more than a single breath at the surface. Early on the sighting, we saw the whales “blow bubbles”  – a behavior that we see from time to time, yet still aren’t sure why it’s done. For most of the sighting, they appeared to be resting/milling in the same area, and then they traveled a little ways up the coast, remaining in very shallow water. We saw at least two coastal bottlenose dolphins pass outside of us, but the two species didn’t interact or even seem to notice one another. We stayed with the two whales for just under half-an-hour before heading out in search of other cetaceans in the area.

We didn’t go very far before we picked up thousands of common dolphins, very spread out, apparently feeding on anchovy. We initially sighted them at a depth of 33.5 fathoms (you can see the second purple waypoint in our track above, representing the beginning of the dolphin sighting), and followed them offshore into deeper water (the farthest waypoint indicates the end of our sighting). The students really enjoyed seeing the dolphins.

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by Dr. Kayla Causey

As soon as we returned to the dock with our first two classes from Canyon Vista, we loaded up two more 5th grade classes and headed right back out to the same spot. We were hoping that the whale would still there. We departed at 10:15, and fortunately the fog had cleared! It was turning out to be a beautiful, calm day on the water.

We caught up with 2 whales just off the point again. There was a sea lion in the water with them, and again the whales were circling the same area, possibly feeding or socializing with one another. We saw a lot of rolling and even spyhopping. I told the scholars that they were seeing more parts of a whale’s body than many people ever see! Check out this amazing photo of one whale’s eye!

Look at this whale’s eye! Great photo by our GWF volunteer, Carla Mitroff

We watched these whales for almost an hour. They were taking their time making their way up the coast. For several minutes at a time they would pause and roll around, showing pectoral fins and flukes, taking long dives (4-5 minutes). Then they would take up traveling again, submerging for only 1-2 minutes at a time as they meandered up the coast. At around 11:12, they moved into shallower water but otherwise continued along their heading. Our average speed throughout the entire observation as we followed the whales was only 5 mph.

As the whales took us farther up the coast, we decided it was time to head back to the dock and ended our sighting at about 11:24. Just as the captain turned the boat and revved the engines… Breach! It’s not uncommon for gray whales to breach like this when they hear the RPMs of the engine increasing. It’s likely that the sound of the boat motor is stimulating to them, but it’s unclear whether this stimulation negatively impacts the whales or is simply exciting. Gray whales don’t breach every time a boat departs from them; however, more often than not when they do breach, it’s seen by passengers off the back of the boat as they’re pulling away. So often, in fact, that Carla (one of our volunteers) had just said, “Don’t take your eyes off the back of the boat just yet…” and then it happened! Fortunately for us, she was ready with her camera and captured these great shots! What a great way to end two exciting trips.