Monterey Bay Whale Watch - January 2003 Feature


The Gray Whale Migration off Monterey
By Nancy Black

Click on small pictures below to see full-size photos.

Migrating Gray WhalesGray Whales are currently being sighted every day off Monterey as the southern migration nears its peak. Weather conditions have improved and lately days at sea have been warm and sunny. We have sighted dolphins on many trips including Long Beaked Common Dolphins, Risso's Dolphins, Pacific White-Sided Dolphins, and Northern Right Whale Dolphins, sometimes in groups of over 1,000! Along with the occasional Killer Whale sighting.

Every year as winter approaches we look forward to the annual migration of the Gray Whale. Gray Whales stream past the California coast on their southern migration during December, January and February and head back north again from mid-February through May. Monterey Bay is the best place to observe these majestic giants, as they migrate close to shore here due to the proximity of the Monterey Submarine Canyon. Since Gray Whales prefer shallow water, they concentrate closer to shore off Monterey and are easily visible from short boat trips or points of land such as Pt. Lobos and along the Big Sur coast.

The deep submarine canyon that characterizes Monterey Bay is the largest and deepest canyon along the west coast and the only one to approach within a mile of the shore. The canyon is as deep and steep as the Grand Canyon. Deep-water species of whales and dolphins often feed along the canyon edge and are very accessible in a day trips from the Monterey Harbor. Throughout the year over 26 species of whales and dolphins occur here; some are seasonal and some are regularly seen year-round. The central California coast is a major upwelling zone, one of only five worldwide. A combination of northwest winds, the contour of the coastline and the rotation of the earth provide an ideal zone for nutrients that are buried on the bottom to become upwelled and brought to the surface where the sun fuels intense plankton blooms. The blooms are the prime food source for krill and fish, which provide a food source for the larger whales such as Humpback and Blue Whales. The Blue Whale is the largest animal to ever live on earth, reaching lengths of 100' and feeding on four tons of krill every day.

Monterey is a unique area where large baleen whales can be seen year-round. Humpback and Blue Whales feed on large concentrations of fish and krill during the summer and fall and Gray Whales migrate past the coastline during winter and spring. Gray Whales feed on small crustaceans during the summer in the Bering Sea, then in late fall they start the longest migration known for any mammal as they head south to their breeding areas in Baja California. This 12,000-mile round trip migration peaks off Monterey during January on their southbound migration and March for their northbound migration.

The Gray Whale is a tremendous success story, as it was taken off the endangered species list several years ago, now numbering over 18,000 individuals. Gray Whales migrate off the coast of Monterey in pods of 2 to 10 whales on their way to their breeding lagoons off the West Coast of Baja California. Along Baja, there are three main lagoons that are shallow, protected inland waters where whales have a safe place to mate and give birth to their calves.

Gray whale calf photo by Nancy BlackThe mothers and calves will frolic and rest during the three months they spend in the lagoons. During March the calves will begin their long migration north accompanied by their mothers. They will hug the coastline, traveling closer to shore than the other Gray Whales. When they reach Monterey Bay, they have a choice of either taking the longer nearshore route or heading straight across the deep submarine canyon.

Killer WhalesKiller Whales, the only predator of the Gray Whale, congregate around Monterey Bay during the Gray Whale cow/calf migration period and target the whales crossing the Bay. Killer Whales are the most intelligent of all the whales and dolphins, live in family groups and prey on marine mammals. The hunt for Gray Whales, especially the calves, requires an amazing strategy and cooperation by the Killer Whales. This is a time when Killer Whales have the opportunity to feed on prey weighing thousands of pounds, rich in blubber providing the calories they need to survive. In addition, the Killer Whales have the opportunity to teach their young how to hunt large whales and attacks may take up to six hours before a whale is killed. Then many Killer Whales will gather together to feed on the carcass for over 12 hours. This predator-prey relationship has occurred for thousands of years and is similar to animals in an African savanna.

Leaping DolphinMonterey Bay Whale Watch offers year-round trips to observe the diversity of marine life in Monterey Bay including the Gray Whale migration. Large schools of dolphins, with over 1,000 animals, also feed here year-round and are easily observed as they bow ride and frolic alongside the boat. Learn more about Monterey Bay marine life or view the latest daily sightings.


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U R Here Features -- January 2003

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Monterey Bay Whale Watch, LLC
84 Fisherman's Wharf
Monterey, CA 93940
Phone 831-375-4658  

Copyright © 2003 Monterey Bay Whale Watch. All rights reserved.
Photos by Nancy Black, Peggy Stap, and Richard Ternullo.

Last updated January 6, 2003