Gray whale megapods

Gray whales blow plumes of mist into the air; photo by ©Carla Mitroff

Passengers aboard a Southern California whale-watching boat on Sunday enjoyed a magical daylong excursion that included rare sightings of gray whale megapods, traveling south toward Baja California's lagoons.

The first group, spotted on grease-calm seas, contained more than 15 whales swimming closely together. The pod, spotted at 10 a.m. between Dana Point and Santa Catalina Island, included at least three juveniles.

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The second megapod, consisting of at least 12 gray whales, was spotted at 2:30 p.m., also in mid-channel, and was being harassed by Risso's dolphins, which acted like cattle dogs guiding a herd. (This type of behavior, although not unprecedented, also is rarely observed.)

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Gray whales that breathe together, also fluke together; photo by ©Alisa Schulman-Janiger

The sightings, made aboard the Ocean Adventures out of Dana Point, were chronicled by a group called the West Coast Whale Geeks, which chartered the Dana Wharf Whale Watching vessel for an 8-hour excursion that also featured sightings of bottlenose and common dolphins, and several other gray whales.

Photos reveal multiple blows and fluking, and blows mixed with fluking, spy hopping, and other behavior. Aerial footage, captured via drone (posted above), shows the majesty and true size of the iconic cetaceans, which were once hunted to the brink of extinction.

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Gray whales milling at the surface; photo by ©Alisa Schulman-Janiger

"This is not a common thing," said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a researcher who also was on the trip. "In all my years on the water I've never been with two megapods in one day."

About 20,000 gray whales annually complete the 6,000-mile trek from Arctic feeding grounds to Baja California, where they nurse and mate, before returning home for the summer feeding season.

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Three gray whale flukes and a heart-shaped blow; photo by ©Christina de la Fuente

Sightings in coastal waters usually involve one or two mammals, or perhaps two or three. It's rare to see groups of 10 or more, because adult gray whales, when they do travel in groups, tend to swim on a more direct offshore route to Mexico.

But this has been a very unusual season, with an earlier migration and more whales than usual appearing to take more of a coastal route, said Schulman-Janiger, who runs the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County.

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Gray whale spyhops (left) as if to see what’s going on; photo by ©Alisa Schulman-Janiger

Shore-based volunteers man a cliff-top promontory at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center from sunrise to sunset throughout the migration period, counting whales and logging their behavior.

Through Monday they had tallied 1,039 southbound gray whales, the fifth highest in the project's 32-year-history.

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Gray whale blows do not all look the same; photo by ©Alisa Schulman-Janiger

"We're seeing more large pods than we typically see, and up in Monterey they're also reporting very large groups passing by," Schulman-Janiger said. "We're seeing many more this season. They’re definitely early, and maybe also picking a route closer to shore."

The southbound migration period is winding down, but sightings should continue for two or three more weeks.

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