On their way north, the whales pass through the Santa Barbara Channel, giving locals a chance to study – or surf – with the once-endangered species from nearby Sands Beach.

Since the end of January, local environmentalist Michael Smith and his team of volunteers have been involved in a research project called Gray Whales Count, where local volunteers gather daily for 15 consecutive weeks to watch and study the whales’ passage through the channel. This year marks the project’s third Whales Count.

Smith, the project’s coordinator, said the purpose of the study is to tally the number of whales passing through the channel to make sure the species’ population remains at a healthy size and ensure the whales remain protected from harmful environmental hazards imposed by humans.

According to Smith, organizers of the Gray Whales Count created the project in order to acknowledge the possibility of extinction for the marine mammals by tracking their numbers, which continue to slowly dwindle.

“Although the gray whale was recently taken off the endangered animal list, they are still at risk,” Smith said. “On the other side of the Pacific, they’re on their way to becoming extinct in the region.”

Smith said keeping a year-to-year record of the whales’ migration is extremely important to ensuring the survival of the species.

“We want to record the whales’ numbers now in case problems arise in the future,” he said. “In another 4 years, we will have a much better picture of what’s going on.”

While it is tricky to record the number and behavior of whales that are miles off shore, Smith said he is fairly confident his team does an accurate job. The volunteers, who keep watch over the channel for eight hours everyday, do 60 to 70 percent of their whale watching with the naked eye.

“The only tools we use are our eyes, binoculars, telescope and phone,” Smith said. “We communicate with nearby whale spotting boats to get an idea where the whales are.”

This year, the Gray Whales Count project has enlisted 75 participants, 16 of which are interns supported by the UCSB Shoreline Preservation Fund, Smith said.

Danni Storz, a fourth-year marine zoology major who volunteers for the project, said watching the whales can be an incredible experience.

“We really get to see some incredible behavior,” Storz said. “Calves playing are especially amazing to watch.”

As well as recording gray whales, Smith said he and the other volunteers also monitor vessel traffic in the channel and study the potential harm they cause to the whales.

Smith said some of his greatest concerns for the gray whales are the effects of boat traffic between the Santa Barbara Harbor and the nearby offshore oil drilling rigs. While oil barges currently make a limited number of trips every few weeks, with potential plans to increase the frequency to two trips a week in the near future, that could drastically affect the whale’s migratory patterns, Smith said.

Right now, the whales are making their annual trip from their breeding waters in Baja back to their home in Alaska. The Count will continue until mid-May, when most of the whales should be through the Channel.

In addition to Sands Beach, aspiring whale watchers can usually catch a glimpse of the grays migrating through the area on most clear days from several south-facing beaches in the Santa Barbara area.