Local whale-watchers have reported what they believe was possibly the largest pod of gray whales seen in Southern California waters in at least three decades.
The pod of 23 gray whales was spotted Sunday afternoon off the coast of Palos Verdes by whale-watchers stations at Point Vicente, then confirmed by a whale researcher aboard a crowded vessel off San Pedro.
"ONCE IN A LIFETIME ENCOUNTER!" exclaimed local American Cetacean Society board member Alisa Schulman-Janiger on Facebook.
Schulman-Janiger said in an interview with NBC4 that the pod was first spotted by amateur scientists with the ACS-Los Angeles chapter's annual gray whale census. The volunteers called a local whale-watching boat, which reported the animals were sperm whales, a truly rare sight.
Hearing about the sperm whales, Schulman-Janiger raced from home to board the whale-watching vessel Christopher as it departed Long Beach harbor for its afternoon cruise.
As the boat got closer to the whales, which were now about 7 miles off San Pedro's Point Fermin, she saw with disappointment that they were gray whales, not sperm whales. Then she began counting.
"Just when you though that it was over, MORE whales came up," she wrote in an email. "Over 30 years of watching and studying whales, and I was awestruck! I will NEVER forget this day!"
With Catalina Island as a backdrop, jostled by shouting tourists and excited children, Schulman-Janiger and a friend counted 23 flukes – the powerful tail of the whale. They took pictures and shot video, too.
"It was mindboggling how many there were," Schulman-Janiger said. "The sun was getting very low in the sky, and the blows were coming up pink, like pink cotton candy blows."
In 30 years of overseeing the ACS-LA's Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, Schulman-Janiger said she has never seen a pod larger than about 16 whales.
Aboard the boat, she tried to stay calm.
"I was trying to count and stay very dispassionate. My friend and I were trying to count," she recalled. "We knew this was like once in a lifetime."
The news of the sighting spread rapidly among the tight-knit whale-watching community. When Schulman-Janiger returned to shore, she alerted a friend in San Diego who spotted a pod of about 20 whales on Monday morning.
"This is the largest sighting all in one group of gray whales that we’ve ever seen from shore and that I've ever seen in my life and I've heard of in Southern California," Schulman-Janiger said of the pod she saw.
She said she's checking with other researchers in the region to find out if they've ever spotted a larger pod.
Gray whales, which can grow up to 50 feet long, migrate from Arctic waters to Baja Mexico in fall, passing by Southern California beginning in December. They return to their Alaskan feeding grounds throughout the spring.
This year, the northern waters began freezing sooner than normal, so the migration began early – just as it did last year, Schulman-Janiger said.
So far this year, the whale-watchers at Point Vicente have spotted 488 southbound whales as of Jan. 22. For the same date last year, there were 476 whales – a fairly similar number, she said.
For more recent years, however, the volunteers had only counted between 150 and 300 as of Jan. 22.
There are about 21,000 gray whales in the eastern North Pacific Ocean, Schulman-Janiger said. It's not clear why more have been spotted off Southern California in the past two years, she said.
Her whale census project is the longest-running such shore-based project in the world, she said. They're always looking for volunteers.
Next week should mark the peak of the southbound migration. So if you’re an amateur scientist or just a lover of wildlife, get yourself to the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes during daylight hours and see the gray whales for yourself.
"All you need are binoculars and patience," Schulman-Janiger said.