Correction: UCSB’s Coastal Fund provided the Gray Whales Count with the stipends for the internships. The Nexus regrets this error.
A handful of UCSB students will have a whale of a tale to tell this quarter thanks to the annual Gray Whales Count.
A local non-profit organization will offer paid internships to UCSB students who participate in the annual whale survey this Winter Quarter. The Gray Whales Count is a collaborative project that works to survey the migration of gray whales from a perch near Coal Oil Point. The organization will offer approximately seven interns a $500 stipend, but will take on as many as 20 interns to assist with the project.
According to Michael Smith, the project coordinator of Gray Whales Count, interns are a key part of the organization’s work and are trained to ultimately become project supervisors. The students work four-hour shifts during which they locate and identify marine mammals — including bottlenose dolphins, humpback whales and killer whales — and record information. They are also responsible for monitoring vessels and noting how they interact with sea life.
There were 83 participants in last year’s whale count — many of whom were affiliated with UCSB — and Smith hopes that the UCSB community will lend a helping hand to the project again this year.
“UCSB students are certainly a vital component of the program,” Smith said.
According to Smith, gray whales are one of nature’s success stories. Pods migrated from Baja California to Northern Alaska for centuries before they were discovered by whalers. The subsequent mass slaughter of the species nearly brought it to extinction until protection laws were enacted.
“In the late 1940s, the whales were protected and they have made such a resounding comeback that they were taken off the endangered species list in 1994,” Smith said. “In fact, they were the first mammal to be taken off that list.”
Although the whales are no longer endangered, Smith said their behavior still needs to be monitored due to limited knowledge about patterns of extinction and the effects global changes may have on whale species.
“What current research has determined is that there were lots of whales, certainly lots more than there are today,” Smith said. “But we think that the ocean — which has changed from ongoing climate change — can’t support as many whales as it once did.”
The Gray Whales Count was established in 2004 as a research project of the Channel Islands Chapter of the American Cetacean Society. The group conducted its first whale count in 2005 and has since become an independent non-profit.
The organization will hold two informational meetings regarding opportunities to work with their program. The first will be on Jan. 12 in the Marine Science Institute auditorium and will be directed to any students who are interested in becoming interns. The second meeting will be on Jan. 17 at the Cliff House at the Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve for those who are interested in learning more about observing marine mammals or missed the first meeting.
Observations will take place from Feb. 8 through March 23 during the end of the southbound migration and the beginning of the northbound migration.