Ocean enthusiasts had better catch the boat before it sails, as whale watching season draws to a close.

More than 24,000 gray whales migrate through Santa Barbara on their way from Baja California, Mexico, to Alaska from February to June each year. However, more whales migrate through the area during the late
spring months, making May an excellent time to go whale watching, said Scott Simon, program manager of the UCSB Marine Science Research Experience and Education Facility.
Simon said the whales also migrate back to Baja between October and February, but weather conditions sometimes make it more difficult to see the animals during winter months.

Leeza Charleboix, a volunteer for the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps, said gray whales have a longer migration route than any other mammal.

“They travel 6,000 miles from Alaska to Baja, and then have to do the return journey again just a few months later,” Charleboix said.

Simon said the easiest way to spot the whales is to look for the spout of air and water they shoot when they come up to breathe. The animals do most of their feeding in Alaska, but do swim closer to the beach when they search for food in the area.

“The whales swim close to our coast because along our coast there is upwelling, which brings up nutrients, which brings krill, which whales feed on,” Simon said.

Fred Benko, captain of the Condor Express, a local whale watching tour boat, said other animals also travel through the area during spring. He said a group of five orca whales attacked a gray whale and her calf two weeks ago about three miles off of Campus Point, while tourists in his boat looked on. Benko said the mother pushed her infant up against the boat to protect it from the orcas, but despite her attempts, both gray whales died. In this instance, he said, the orcas only ate the mother’s tongue.

“These [orcas] are the bad guys,” Benko said. “They are mean critters. It is a predator-prey relationship.”

Benko said such attacks are common during whale-watching season.

“I’ve seen it many times,” Benko said. “It happens about once a year.”

Simon said the captains of whale-watching tour boats are careful not to interfere with the whales’ natural habits and the only interaction between tourists and the animals are the photos whale-watchers often take.

“I don’t think that they do [interfere with the whales],” Simon said. “The captains are real conscious of how close they can get, due to the Marine Mammals Protection Act.”