gray whale

Gray whale with newborn calf off Dana Point; video screen grab

Gray whales are being spotted in record numbers off Southern California, thanks to clear skies, a mostly calm ocean, lots of eyeballs on the water, and what appears to be an earlier migration period than normal.

What also stands out, besides the numerous blows wafting skyward from thousands of whales that are headed from Arctic feeding grounds to Mexican nursing grounds, are the babies!

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The accompanying video footage was captured via drone by David Anderson, who runs Capt. Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safaris out of Dana Point in Orange County.

It provides a bird's-eye view of a newborn gray whale clinging to mom's side, learning how to time its surface breathing, and beginning its first of what could be many migratory journeys along the West Coast.

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Gray whale breathes a rainbow off Orange County; photo by Slater Moore Photography

"Quite a pair," Anderson says, fondly.

The extraordinary footage also shows a different mother and calf on their northbound journey, for the sake of comparison, revealing how much larger the babies are after they've spent three months nursing in Baja California's lagoons.

Now about those record numbers.

gray whale

Gray whale with newborn calf; photo by Slater Moore Photography

Through Monday, the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, which uses volunteer spotters to count whales from the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County, 504 southbound whales had been tallied.

That's a record for a project that has been in place for 31 years, serving to document numbers and trends having to do with the migration.

The 504 southbound gray whales, though it represents only a portion of gray whales actually passing by, is higher than the entire season count for 11 of those 31 seasons. (The end of the migration period off Southern California is late May.)

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Gray whale with calf in the Santa Barbara Channel; photo by Robert Perry/Condor Express

Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who runs the ASC-LA project, said the high number of whales points to an earlier start to the gray whale migration—a trend that has been evident for the past four years.

"Because they're leaving earlier, we're bound to have more by the same date so early in the season," the researcher said, adding that this season's December southbound count of 393 beat the previous season's record southbound count of 364.

Other factors are the weather: Fog, wind, and rain make detecting whales much more difficult.

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Gray whale reveals fluke as it prepares to dive; photo by Slater Moore Photography

Also, it could be that, for whatever reason, more whales are migrating closer to shore, making them more visible to spotters and whale watchers.

Neither Schulman-Janiger nor Wayne Perryman, a NOAA scientist who studies the gray whale migration, could say precisely why the whales are leaving Arctic waters early, but clearly it has to do with ice cover and feeding conditions.

"Certainly it is linked to conditions in the Arctic, but I don’t think anyone really knows what factors trigger migratory timing," Perryman said.

Whatever the explanation, the early migration and near-perfect weather are helping commercial whale-watching operations log banner starts to their seasons.

For example, Capt. Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safaris logged counts of 13 gray whales on Saturday, five on Sunday, and six on Monday.

Dana Wharf Whale Watching, which also runs from Dana Point, logged 177 gray whale sightings through Monday, compared to 97 for the same period last season.

As for the babies, the ACS-LA project tallied 12 cow-calf pairs through Monday. That's second only to 19 cow-calf pairs counted through January 5 in 1997-98, an El Niño winter.

Many more are being spotted by whale-watching operations and private boaters, helping to dispel a widespread notion that gray whales deliver most of their babies in Baja's lagoons.

In fact, as many as 50 percent of gray whale births occur before the mothers reach the lagoons. But because winter generally provides lots of poor weather, keeping spotters at bay, most of them go undetected.

But this year, it seems, that all the dynamics of the southbound migration are on clear display, and so far nobody is complaining.

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