Monterey Bay Whale Watch - March 1998 Feature


--- The Birth of a Gray Whale in Monterey Bay, California ---
By Nancy Black and Richard Ternullo

Gray Whale Calf (11K)
Gray Whale Calf

The highlight of this Gray Whale season was the unexpected and spectacular birth of a Gray Whale calf during one of our whale watching trips. On January 15 we were aboard the Pt. Sur Clipper on a Monterey Bay Whale Watch trip. There was light to moderate rain with strong southerly winds west of Pt. Pinos. These conditions forced us to seek the shelter of the Bay and search for whales migrating inside the protection of the Bay.

We began observing a single large Gray Whale at about 11:35 about 1 mile north of Pt. Pinos. The whale was slowly swimming in a wide circle, frequently surfacing. The whale would periodically make a high arch as if to begin a fluke-up dive, but then submerged with no visible flukes above the surface. The whale then began swimming in ever tightening circles and surfacing even more often.

At this point, Captain Richard Ternullo made an offhand comment to Biologist Nancy Black that this whale seemed as if she was about to give birth. This was partly in jest and partly to account for its unusual behavior. The whale was on the starboard (right) side of our boat when it unexpectedly surfaced close by and a newborn calf popped right out of the water next to the mother for its first breath at 11:57. A large dark cloud of blood appeared around the posterior portion of the mother. The infant whale had clearly folded flukes. It swam awkwardly and would jut its head above the surface and then throw its flukes high in the air and submerge. After about five minutes, the calf calmed down into a more regular and normal surfacing motion.

We made every effort to avoid any activity that would disturb the mother or newborn calf. After the calf seemed stabilized, we left the whales and began observing other whales that had entered the area. Along with us, there were about 25 passengers who were truly amazed at what we had just witnessed. The was a remarkable encounter and nothing like this has ever been witnessed in the Bay before.

Thirty-nine mother/calf pairs were recorded for Monterey Bay during the 1998 southbound migration. Although Gray Whale mother/calf pairs are sighted each year, with 27 noted two years ago, this year's number was the most ever documented since we began noting them four years ago. Other Gray Whale shore census stations also recorded a record number of mother/calf pairs. The Gray Whale Census Station at Granite Creek (south of Monterey), operated by the National Marine Mammal Lab (NMFS), recorded over forty mother/calf sightings. Over 100 observations of such pairs were recorded farther south at the Pt. Vincente (Palos Verdes Peninsula) Observation Station, manned by volunteers from the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Cetacean Society.

Most Gray Whale calves are born in a relatively narrow period of a few weeks spanning the last week of December and the first two weeks of January. Since Monterey Bay is a relatively short swim (10 to 14 days) to the lagoons in Baja California, it is not surprising that calves are born during the southbound migration. However, increased observations of calves indicate that something else may have influenced pregnant females to migrate a bit later than usual.

Wayne Perryman (Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NMFS) suggested that due to the warmer ocean temperatures related to El Nino, the whales may have stayed longer in their Alaskan feeding regions. Normally the ice moves south and covers the feeding areas, but this season the ice moved south a bit later than usual, allowing the whales to spend more time feeding. This could provide an advantage for pregnant females as they need to gain as much weight as possible to increase their chances of giving birth to healthy calves and having enough energy reserves to nurse the calves for many months.

Wayne Perryman, who presented his research at the Marine Mammal Conference in Monaco this past January, found that during years when the ice moves in late, Gray Whales are more successful at producing healthy calves with higher survival rates through the northern migration. His group monitors the mother/calf pairs during their northern migration at his census station at Pt. Piedras Blancas (north of Morro Bay) and predicts that this year there is likely to be a relatively large proportion of mother/calf pairs.

Few births are witnessed, even with over 23,000 Gray Whales in the population. Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director of the census station at Pt. Vincente, knows of only 6 other reports of observed births either on migration in southern California or in the lagoons. Researchers such as Marilyn Dahlheim of the National Marine Mammal Lab, who has spent over 5 years studying Gray Whales in their breeding lagoons of Mexico, have never seen a birth. Therefore, the birth we witnessed in Monterey Bay on January 15 was a very rare event that will be remembered for a long time!

Note: The Gray Whale calf in the photograph is not the one born on January 15. Unfortunately no photos of that calf were available, so another photo was used to illustrate the story.


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Photo by Nancy Black.

Last updated February 8, 1999