What a great day we had with Ms. Norgren’s and Ms. Chaddock’s classes from Ambuehl Elementary. The ocean was calm, the sun was shining, and we saw two gray whales!

We left the Harbor aboard the Dana Pride at 10:03 a.m. with the tide moving out. Sea surface temperature was 59 degrees under clear skies, calm seas, and excellent sighting conditions. The Beaufort State was an easygoing “1” (scale like ripples but without foam crests — they don’t call it the “Pacific” for nothin’!). We headed North but didn’t get too far before sighting two juvenile gray whales traveling Southeast (down coast). We were in about 14 fathoms of water, and just off the headlands of Dana Point.

When we initially observed the whales, their respiration patterns represented normal gray whale traveling behavior — they took several short-interval dives between quick breaths at the surface before taking a deeper, longer dive and staying submerged for several minutes. We observed a few cycles of this breathing pattern, and the whales stayed down on their long dive for just over 5 minutes. Our 4th and 5th grade scholars did a stellar job timing and recording the respiration patterns of these animals, which can be particularly challenging when there are TWO individuals to keep track of!

When the whales resurfaced after this initial long dive, they were near our boat, and their behavior changed slightly. They didn’t stay at the surface as long, and one of the whales made a pretty good “footprint” on the water. A “footprint” is a slick spot on the surface of the ocean that is the result of a whale using its flukes (tail) forcefully to propel itself forward through the water. It looks something like this:

The whales then stayed down for about a minute and a half before resurfacing farther away from the boat, fluking, and making another longer dive. After a few minutes, they resurfaced, but again didn’t stay at the surface as long before making another long dive (just over 3 minutes). This change in breathing patterns and movement suggested that our presence was impacting the whales’ behavior. Given that gray whales can hold their breath up to 15 minutes, it’s not likely that the change in respiration patterns that we observed was a signal of distress. But it’s important that we as scientists, boaters, and observers, pick up on animals’ cues before they are distressed to ensure their safety and our own. Even though we maintained a respectful distance from the animals (we always follow the whale watching guidelines of the Marine Mammal Protection Act), these whales were young and possibly making their first migration down to the breeding and calving lagoons. It’s no surprise, then, that they were a little evasive. So we did the right thing; we backed off even more, and then we left them alone.

All in all it was a very successful trip. We collected data on the whales, got some photos of their flukes for identification purposes, and we got to demonstrate to the young scholars the importance of respecting wildlife and nature while trying to learn about it. We were able to point out the subtle change in the whales’ behavior and how that could be the result of our presence. We then showed students how to do the responsible thing; we moved on. We finished up the trip with a view of sea lions on the channel marker and talked with smaller groups of scholars about gray whales and their feedings habits and migration.

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