In preparation for the commencement of 2007’s whale migration season, the Gray Whales Count organization is recruiting UCSB student volunteers to tally the number of gray whales migrating north through the Santa Barbara Channel.

According to Gray Whales Count Project Coordinator Michael Smith, recording the number of gray whales – a formerly endangered species – passing through the channel each year from January through May could help researchers understand changes in the whale population from year to year, especially in the event of an environmental disaster.

The annual project – a joint endeavor by researchers from UCSB’s Coal Oil Point Reserve, the American Cetacean Society-Channel Islands and the Cascadia Research Collective – relies on the help of volunteers to both tally the whales and observe other ocean activity that could affect each year’s count.

“People have known for a long time that gray whales migrate past the coast of Santa Barbara, but no one knew how many,” Smith said. “The area is full of boats, oil production and oil seeps, so it’s important to get an idea of the real numbers of animals inhabiting this environment to understand the impact on them if something drastic happens, like an oil spill.”

Smith said project coordinators for Gray Whales Count are looking for student volunteers from a variety of backgrounds and academic majors to serve two-hour shifts once per week until the migration season concludes.

Smith said he and his colleagues plan to watch this year’s migration from the Coal Oil Point Reserve everyday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Jan. 29 until May 13.

In addition to counting whales, Smith said volunteers will make notes about the movements of oil barges, other boats in the area and anything else that could potentially interfere with the whales’ migratory patterns. He said observers often observe dolphins, sea otters, sea lions and an occasional elephant seal in the water as they count whales.

“It’s a real kick because we get to talk to all the surfers and students and general community members heading to the beach,” Smith said. “Some of them aren’t even aware of all the whales and the other animal life out there, and some have great stories of their own. It’s really fun to trade stories with surfers who have been right in the water next to a gray whale or a dolphin.”

According to Smith, scientists have feared the extinction of the gray whale as early as the 1940s. The species landed on the first list of endangered species in 1972, but later became the first mammal to be taken off the list in 1994, after the species’ population had stabilized substantially.

“It’s a good thing that the gray whale has been taken off the list,” Smith said. “It indicates that the protections work, but we can’t just forget about it. We want to keep monitoring the situation.”

Project coordinators for Gray Whales Count invite any person interested in participating in the project to attend an orientation meeting Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History’s Farrand Hall.