The Big Blue Ocean Exploration

Can embattled gray whale make it home?

Young, undernourished mammal was discovered entangled off Southern California, but has been freed and is inching slowly toward Arctic home waters

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Gray whale dragging kelp and perhaps a rope off Mission Beach; photo via Facebook

For those who like to root for the underdog, a young gray whale off California is struggling mightily, yet against strong odds, to reach its Arctic home waters.

Last Thursday the 25-foot juvenile whale was spotted off Mission Beach and La Jolla in San Diego County. It was entangled with rope—possibly a commercial fishing line—and kelp, and was clearly encumbered (see top image).

Most gray whales have already reached their Arctic feeding grounds, after spending the winter and part of spring in Baja California nursing and mating grounds. This straggler was swimming at about the same pace a person walks.

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Gray whale, no longer entangled, is spotted Saturday off Huntington Beach; photo courtesy of John Minar

A disentanglement team did not reach the whale before nightfall Thursday, but a group of surfers experienced a close and unforgettable encounter with what was most likely the same whale, just before dusk.

Alex Rennie posted this recollection on Facebook: “Kid you not—today I got a foot massage … from a WHALE!! I surfed with Rick and Victor at Tourmaline’s today … and I noticed there was a whale circling around me. Its back was barnacled, so I first thought it was a rock until it started moving and breached—exhaling. I yelled to the guys and Victor paddled over. The whale proceeded to bump Victor from under his board lifting him about a foot upward.

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Gray whale investigates Cabrillo Marina; last three photos are courtesy of ©Diane Alps/Cabrillo Marine Aquarium

“After it put him down it circled under me and rubbed it’s body underneath my feet as I sat on my board, (sort of cat-like) lifting me upward too. (So I kinda surfed the whale).

“He was about 20+ feet long—where the barnacles ended—his skin was smooth and dark grey (and felt nice on my feet!) I thought I saw seaweed or something dangling off his tail—so the only downer to it is that he may have been seeking our help.”

Was the whale seeking help? Only the whale knows.

But this whale looked thin and undernourished, and was covered with an inordinate amount of lice (whale lice is normal, but too much whale lice is a sign of poor health).

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But the whale pushed on, and received significant help from somebody, or some group, on the weekend.

A whale of similar size and with similar markings—almost undoubtedly the same whale—was spotted Saturday off Orange County. And it was no longer entangled.

David Anderson of Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari posted on Facebook that he had located the whale, ready to help disentangle the mammal, but that job had already been accomplished by “a lifeguard.”

NOAA, which is supposed to be notified before any disentanglement effort is made, has not said who or what group freed the whale, or whether this was even the same whale. But unofficially, it’s the same whale.

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On Saturday, the cetacean made an appearance near the lineup at the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach. On Sunday it was seen inside Cabrillo Marina, within vast Los Angeles Harbor, swimming in and out of boat slips.

Diane Alps, programs coordinator at Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, captured the last three images accompanying this story. On Monday she posted this update on Facebook:

“Yesterday we got a visit from a juvenile gray whale, approx 25ft long, in the Cabrillo Marina—not just in the LA Harbor, but way up in the Marina! Worried that it might have been the entangled whale that was reported off of La Jolla, I called John Calambokidis, (a trained and authorized disentangler) who was nearby, readying to depart for a research project.

“Once we found the whale, we were able to confirm that it was not entangled (yea!) There is still great concern though, as this whale is slow moving, and WAY behind its feeding schedule.”

There are about 22,000 Pacific gray whales, which spend the summer gorging on small crustaceans, such as amphipods, that are concentrated in Arctic waters.

The juvenile whale off Southern California is probably hungry, but there’s hope along those lines. Gray whales are highly opportunistic and feed on more items than any other species of whale, including krill, which is presently blooming off Southern and Central California.

Wrote Alisa Schulman-Janiger on Facebook: “Note the heavy infestation of orange whale lice and the large post-cranial dip (depression behind the blowholes), indicating that this whale is underweight and not in good health. It was moving up the coast at a very slow rate of just over about one mile an hour; gray whales typically swim at three to five miles per hour.

“Please watch for this ailing whale as it passes through the South Bay and up the coastline!”

So the watch continues, and the best news is that the whale is no longer encumbered, so maybe that will provide this underdog with the boost it needs to prevail.

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