Are you ready for a heart racing adventure? Join one of the many tours in San Diego for a close up look at one of the largest mammals in the world. The migration of gray whales along the west of North America is a remarkable annual event. Between October and May, gray whales journey 10,000 miles or more to the warm, tranquil lagoons of Mexico and back again to their feeding grounds in frigid artic waters-the longest migration known for a mammal. In its lifetime, an average gray whale swims the distance to the moon and back.
Every October, the females depart their feeding grounds and head south to subtropical lagoons along the Pacific coast of Baja California or mainland Mexico where they will give birth. In the following weeks, the mothers-to-be are followed by breeding adults, immature whales, and yearlings. Mating takes place primarily during the southward migration, in late November and early December.
The journey north occurs in February. Single whales are the first to leave. Mother-calf pairs depart a month or more later, giving babies time to grow strong on their mother’s rich milk-which is 35 to 50% fat! Calves will consume an estimated 50 gallons of milk per day.
San Diego’s marine life is both rich and diverse. Thousands of species of marine plants, crustaceans, mollusks, other invertebrates, fish, seabirds, and marine mammals use an astonishing diversity of habitats. Some species, such as squid, may swarm by the millions in relatively small areas near the coast. Other species, such as blue whales, come in small numbers from distant waters to feed on blooms of krill. Marine mammals, seabirds, and fish migrate from one part of the California coast to another or across the boundaries between Mexico and California.
Whales, dolphins and porpoises, belong to the order of aquatic mammals called cetaceans. Like other mammals whales are warm blooded, breathe air, bear their young live, and nourish their babies with milk. Gray whales are toothless; their upper jaw is lined with rows of a stiff, bristly material called baleen. They are typically bottom feeders, rolling on their side and placing their cheeks a few inches above the ocean floor. Retracting its large, muscular tongue, the whale sucks in a mouthful of mud and water, then forces the slurry out through the rows of baleen. Small, mud dwelling crustaceans and other bits of food are captured on the coarse fringe.
The predictable parade of gray whales along the California coast affords excellent whale watching opportunities. Prime time for whale watching off San Diego is December through January for the southern migration, and February through March for the northward migration. Gray whales generally travel alone or in pods of two or three: at the peak of migration, a dozen or more individuals may be seen together. They cruise slowly through near shore waters at a speed of two to six miles per hour.
Gray whales are warm-mammals that spend much of their life in frigid arctic waters. How do they manage to stay warm? Blubber……They have many adaptations for conserving body heat, including a five-inch thick layer of fat, called blubber, beneath their skin! Adult gray whales may reach 50 feet in length. Newborns are about 15 feet long.
Deep diving is signaled when a whale raises its huge tail into the air. This behavior is called sounding. The return of the whale to the surface will be announced by a blow-a tall plume of vapor resulting from forceful exhalation.
San Diego offers multiple whale watching opportunities. Enjoy a memorable 3 1/2 hour Whale Watching cruise with Hornblower Cruises and Events on some of the most comfortable boats in Southern California, proudly in educational partnership with the San Diego Natural History Museum. www.hornblower.com, www.sdnhm.org. 855-552-9051.
The famous sailing yacht AMERICA, docked at the San Diego Maritime Museum, offers Whale Watching tours with an educational and historical perspective. Next Level Sailing whale watching tours include free admission to the museum. (800) 644-3454 www.nextlevelsailing.com
H & M Landing provides daily 3 hour offshore cruises to view the California Gray Whales or choose a 6 hour Nature Cruise until May. www.hmlanding.com (619) 222-1144
Spot a gray whale swimming off our coastline by kayak and along the way observe stunning reefs and marine life native to our area while exploring sea cliffs. La Jolla Kayak. (858) 459-1114. www.lajollakayak.com. Hike Bike Kayak. (866) 425-2925. www.hikebikekayak.com
Be sure to check out Big Bay Whale Days on January 26th, 2013. This free Whale Festival is a family community event offering a wide variety of interactive and hands on displays including a walk-through gray whale, live sea creatures, face painting, live music, and more! www.whaledays.com.
This article is reprinted in part courtesy of Birch Aquarium at Scripps, prepared by Debbie Zmarzly, Ph.D