A juvenile gray whale was spotted at Stearns Wharf on Tuesday, marking the beginning of whale watching season.
The whale was sighted by a jogger at approximately 6 a.m. and again at 6:30 a.m. by a wharf parking employee. Michael Smith, the project coordinator of Gray Whales Count, reported another sighting yesterday 200 yards off of Counter Point around 12:30 p.m.
It is unknown if the whale seen yesterday was the same whale from earlier in the week, but many more are expected as the migratory season progresses.
Michelle Berman, local whale expert and employee of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, said public sightings of whales so close to shore are atypical.
“We’ve had some hang out in the harbor, but it’s not all that common that they come that close to shore,” she said. “I think that the fact that we can see them on our coast line is pretty cool … any time that there’s animal life around that isn’t easy to spot normally, the public really enjoys that.”
According to Keith Jones, who runs the whale watching group Baja Jones Adventures, gray whales migrate from Alaska to Baja before traveling back north to Alaska.
“Whales migrate from cold northern or southern polar water where they eat in the summer, to the more tropical water to give birth and to mate,” Jones said in an e-mail. “There is not enough food in the warm water areas, so that is why they must go north or south to eat.”
Smith said the whales are born in Baja lagoons where they dwell for approximately six to eight weeks before heading north with their mothers.
“The whales we see around here are coming from Mexico and coming back up,” Smith said. “At this time, there is — especially with juvenile animals — a little bit of confusion about migration. Juveniles really don’t know what the whole story with migration is. It’s really with mating and birthing, and they don’t participate in that, so they turn around and come back.”
Gray whales were taken off the endangered species list in 1994 but are still being monitored. Whale watching groups work to regulate the patterns and activities of the whales in order to better understand their lifestyle and monitor changes in numbers and migration.