Gray whale spotted Thursday is the same one photographed by the same person last Jan. 15. Photos: Ryan Lawler.

Captain Ryan Lawler on Thursday reported the season's first gray whale sighting for Newport Coastal Adventure in Newport Beach, California.

Very cool, but what makes the sighting extraordinary is that Lawler photographed the same whale showing its fluke in the same manner in the same area, at the same time of day, last Jan. 15.


The gray whale’s towering blow was one element of familiarity for Capt. Ryan Lawler. Photo: Ryan Lawler

The odds of one person seeing the same whale on consecutive southbound migrations, and being able to identify that whale based on a matching photograph of its fluke, are astronomical.

"This is one guy who runs only a few trips per day and there are 21,000 gray whales migrating down the coast," researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger said. "What are the chances you're going to see that same whale again the next season, and be in position to see its fluke like that, again, to make a match?"


An un-cropped image from the sighting last January 15. Photo: Ryan Lawler

What's also remarkable is that Lawler, who has seen hundreds of gray whales, recognized the peculiar pattern on the whale's fluke on Thursday, and found his photo from last January to make the successful match.

"It was making a large blow, which got me excited to be able to show a big gray whale to my passengers," said Lawler, who saw the whale at about noon both times. "So that was one element of familiarity. But of course the fluke is what made me remember back to the sighting I had in January.

"It was very 'beefy' and with more surface area than a lot of the gray whale flukes I have seen. And the style of it actually reminded me, strange as it sounds, of the kind of lines you would find on a Victorian-era piece of furniture. That’s how I remembered it in my head."


An un-cropped image from the sighting on Thursday, Dec. 3. Photo: Ryan Lawler

It's unclear why this whale would be passing the same area more than a month earlier than the previous season, but it could be that the whale is pregnant and hurrying to Baja California to give birth.

Schulman-Janiger, who runs the ASC-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project from the Point Vicente Interpretive Center promontory in Los Angeles County, said pregnant gray whales tend to migrate earlier.

Gray whales complete a 12,000-mile round-trip migration every year from Arctic summer feeding areas to and from lagoons in Baja California, Mexico, where they mate and nurse their young.

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