Monday, February 6, 2012

Arise! Leviathan of the Deep!

At six every morning a group of people start to assemble on the cliffs of Rancho Palos Verdes.  Below them, under the blue Pacific, are their targets.  Other groups like them form loose squads up and down the Pacific Coast.  They volunteered for their mission, and yet they are unarmed.  They set up their positions, check their bearings, and begin scanning the blue horizon.  They peer quietly through their binoculars or telescopes.  The ignore the tugs and freighters, quickly dismissing their markings and bearing.  What they seek lies below the surface, moving quietly and with purpose.  This morning, I was with them.
Scanning the horizon.

The grey-haired gentleman to my left, who is scanning the southern sector suddenly stops, breaths in a bit and bellows, "Arise!!! Leviathan of the Deep!!!"

Suddenly, there is much more activity.

"Where?  Bearing?"

"136!  Do you see it?!"

A pause as everyone focuses their eyes.  Suddenly, I see what they are looking for.

Gray whales spouting.

A shiny, deep gray form breaks the surface of the water, moving north.   A whale!!!  Then I see the plume.  I can hear it breathing in!  Powerful!

Whales. A pod of four gray whales breaking the surface of the water to breathe before they go back down for about 4-5 minutes.  Beautiful creatures!

Cetacean comparison chart.

The group chatters excitedly and documents everything. Their enthusiasm gets carried over to the joggers and walkers along the coastal hiking trail. These people are not part of the Civil Defense or Coast Guard Auxiliary, looking for enemy submarines. They are whale watchers. Volunteers, all of them. These men and women are whale spotters for the American Cetacean Society's (ACS) Gray Whale Census.

ACS Gray Whale Census Volunteers.  I was told the patches on the chairs are designed by volunteers and represent each season in which the volunteer participated.
The group tracks and counts gray whales and other marine mammals that move up and down the US Pacific coast.  Their "camp" is the Point Vicente Interpretive Center, a nature center that showcases the flora, fauna, history, and marine ecosystems of the Palos Verdes Penninsula near Los Angeles, Calif.

This season's whale counts have been big. There have even been orcas spotted in the harbor this year. 

This morning the group consisted of local residents Jean, Bob, Steve, Nancy, and Stephanie.  Bob tells me that the group has been doing this for around 30 years.  They are unpaid, dedicated, and work in all kinds of weather.  (Read the Wall Street Journal article -if you subscribe - about these dedicated people.)

Volunteers keep an eye on the gray whale pod they spotted traveling north.

The group tracked a pod of grays as they moved north up the coast.  Several species migrate along the Pacific coast, but the ACS, based in San Pedro, Calif., tracks the Eastern Pacific gray whales because they frequently use the California coast and Channel Island corridor as their route.

The Pacific ocean from the Palos Verdes Peninsula looking toward a hazy Malibu in the distance.  The Channel Islands, out of view but to the left, create a very busy cetacean migration route, mirroring the human, yet just as busy 405 Freeway that runs the same direction on land. 

The whale spotters track numbers, species, behavior, and the number of calves they see.  They only see a handful of a great number of migrating whales, but their data is indicative of the overall health of the migrating species. This year there has been a record number of southbound gray whale sightings.

Stephanie, a veteran whale counter, uses a telescope to track a gray whale pod.   She recorded the number of whales, times they surfaced, and if they "fluked" - showed their tails before diving under.
As the pod began to move out of sight, I took my leave (and took a a few pictures) just as a group of school kids arrived at the center.

Kids line the railing next to the Pt. Vicente Interpretive Center.  
I watched as they were quickly ushered to the railings to catch a glimpse of the whale pod as they took their deep breaths before going under for another 4-5 minutes.  I saw the ACS volunteers watch them with pleased smiles. I wondered if the kids realized how lucky we are to see such magnificent animals.  Maybe one of them will be watching for whales one day.

Resources and Sites:

Blue Whale Census and Behavior Project at

The ACS Los Angeles Chapter at

Slide show of whale watchers in the WSJ images about the whale watchers

Follow the ACS on Twitter @CetaceanSociety

They're also on Facebook at