Not only are whales spyhopping more than usual off the SoCal coast this year, they're putting on shows rarely seen in this part of the Pacific.
An amorous pair of gray whales was spotted rolling in the surf about 2 miles off the Dana Point coast Sunday -- a ritual suggestive of courtship and possibly mating, and usually seen farther out in the ocean.
"It's not often that we catch this behavior on film," said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director and coordinator for ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project.
Schulman-Janiger was hesitant to describe the behavior as mating since it wasn't clear exactly what was happening underwater, but she said the whales rolling, breaching and touching certainly looks like courtship.
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A camera on board Captain Dave's Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari captured the moment, embedded below. Among the voyeurs witnessing the couple were a pod of curious bottlenose dolphins, kayakers and a stand-up paddle boarder.
"Apparently everyone was curious, especially the dolphin. We often see pacific white-sided dolphin interacting with these whales but to have bottlenose dolphin was extraordinary,” Captain Dave Anderson said.
Every year, gray whales migrate some 12,000 miles from their feeding grounds near Alaska and British Columbia to the warm, protected lagoons of Baja California -- hundreds of miles south of Dana Point -- to give birth and nurse their calves.
“We don’t know why these two whales chose to make a stop along the way,” Anderson said.
It’s also a mystery why this season has been particularly plentiful for whale watchers off the Southern California coast. Schulman-Janiger said gray whale sightings are the second-highest they've been in 31 years, and several factors could be contributing to the trend.
California's extremely dry winter has made visibility along the coast consistently better, so watchers may be seeing more whales simply because conditions are clearer, Schulman-Janiger said.
"If you can see them, you can count them," she said.
Another possibility lies in the whales' arctic feeding grounds, which froze earlier than usual this year, forcing them to head south sooner than expected.
But that still doesn't explain why so many whales are appearing to hug the shore, a route typically taken by young whales who aren't in such a rush to get to the Baja lagoons and mate. Schulman-Janiger said scientists will need to see the whole picture of this year's season before a conclusion can be reached.
So far, Captain Dave’s safaris have had 168 gray whale encounters this season, which runs from January to May. By comparison, the safaris recorded 78 sightings of gray whales last year, the group said.
About 50 miles north along the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where Schulman-Janiger's whale census project is stationed, there have been about 738 gray whale sightings since Dec. 1, 2013. That’s up about 200 since last year and more than twice the average, according to data from the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, pictured above.
For those hoping to spot whales, the creatures will continue migrating south until about mid-February. At the end of April and beginning of May, mothers and their calves will start moving northward again.
To protect the still-vulnerable juveniles, these pairs tend to hug the shore so there’s a better chance of spotting them on their way back to arctic feeding grounds, Schulman-Janiger said.