Our first Gray Whale Research Trip of the season is going to be a tough one to beat! We saw a breaching gray whale and a large pod of offshore bottlenose dolphins that had a great time playing with the boat and splashing us! We so enjoyed having Ms. Takacs’s 4th and 5th grade students from Chapparal helping us collect data on southbound gray whales.

One of the first things we do on our trips is have scholars record the environmental conditions of the day. These important variables help us understand what factors might affect the presence of whales and their behavior, as well as our ability to sight whales if they are present. Well let me tell you, the sightability conditions were excellent on Wednesday. We had clear skies, little to no chop or glare, and Beaufort State of “1” (this translates to scale-like ripples but without foam crests… aka “perrrrfect”). The water, on the other hand, was a chilly 59 degrees!

We left the dock at 09:58 with the tide coming in. We headed North of Dana Point Harbor, pausing at the Channel Marker to see our pinniped friends, the California sea lions, including a large bull male.Pinniped Friends

Not long after that, we sighted our Gray Whale! Our junior scientists began collecting data on its location, heading, and behavior. This whale, which Capt. Todd identified as likely a male, was travelling southbound, alone, in water that was about 20 fathoms deep. Ms. Takacs’s students recorded and timed his dives. Several were deep dives that lasted an average of 2.5 minutes. He would then resurface to take 3-4 regulating breaths at the surface before diving again. We also got to see him breach! What a treat!

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Our GPS data indicated that he was traveling at an average speed of about 3 mph. We observed the whale from 10:26 to 10:45 as he curved out around the Dana Point headlands – just long enough to get the essential data that we needed — before leaving him to continue his migration to the lagoons. Below is an image of our transect track (the path we navigated while looking for whales), with a waypoint dropped where we initially sighted the gray whale. You can see the time of our sighting and our coordinate positions.

As we were leaving the gray whale, we got word over the radio that another boat had spotted a large pod of offshore bottlenose dolphins. We headed out in search for them, and to our delight, found them very quickly just a few miles offshore in much deeper water (approx. 200 fathoms). The scholars had fun trying to count how many dolphins were in the pod (we estimated more than 50, perhaps 100). Lots of calves too! The dolphins may have been foraging when we arrived; it’s hard to know because as soon as we showed up, all they wanted to do was play with the boat and bowride. They put on a great show – leaping and breaching. Some of the scholars and chaperones even got splashed by a breaching dolphin, as evidenced by the photo below!

Many of us got splashed by the acrobatic bottlenose dolphins!

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We observed the dolphins for about 18 minutes and recorded their behaviors (playing and socializing). The kids had a great time learning about echolocation and how dolphins sleep by shutting down half their brain at a time.

While we were watching the dolphins, we also saw a Mylar balloon floating on the surface nearby. It’s always unfortunate to see these pollutants in the water, but it was a great opportunity to educate the scholars about these problems for the marine environment and ways to prevent this kind of pollution. Thanks to Capt. Frank for scooping it out of the water!

All in all, it was a memorable and productive first trip!

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