This holiday season, whale researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger got precisely what she wished for.
On Dec. 23, the sun was shining on the South Bay, and the beaches were crowded with people enjoying a mid-winter wave of summer heat.
Aboard a boat off the shore of Redondo Beach, Schulman-Janiger was experiencing a moment most humans never will.
Looming large, its body upright and arising from the ocean’s surface, a female orca peered into her eyes. The encounter was, for Schulman-Janiger, a gift of the most extraordinary kind.
“You think you’ve seen everything you’re going to see, and then you get something like that,” she said this week. “It’s like being in the jungle and having a group of gorillas come by and sit and stare at you, and look into your eyes. There’s something that goes on there that’s just incredible – it’s hard to describe.”
Bobbing in line with her three offspring, the whale spyhopped and breached in what Schulman-Janiger believes was a celebration of a recent kill, ostensibly the common dolphin carcass floating nearby.
For an hour, the orca and her little family reveled and frolicked under a cloudless blue sky and a sun that warmed the Beach Cities to a temperature exceeding 80 degrees. The black-and-white creatures blew bubbles, rolled their hefty bodies atop the ocean, and rode the wake trailing behind Okum – an 18-foot powerboat from which Schulman-Janiger and fellow whale researcher Eric Martin observed. Okum was the name of a calf that Martin, the director of Roundhouse Aquarium in Manhattan Beach, encountered face-to-face in Puget Sound years ago and that subsequently perished in a mass whale die-off.
The pair watched, photographed, and deployed an underwater GoPro to film the orcas playing, footage CBS and KCAL9 aired last week. They had been notified of the killer whales’ presence by a group of volunteers watching in shifts from Point Vicente in Palos Verdes.
Slowly, Okum moved alongside the creatures that inspired the boat’s name – killer whales, or orcas, the world’s largest species of dolphin.
“I can’t wait,” Schulman-Janiger said, “to get to see them again.”
It would appear that she, and other whale enthusiasts, might not have to wait long before the next encounter.
The same family of four killer whales has been sighted five times in the South Bay in the last month, and a separate subpod was spotted Tuesday morning off Redondo Beach. Gray whale sightings have also hit record numbers – there were more than during any other December in the past 31 years.
The family of orcas Schulman-Janiger encountered last week is one she knows personally. Headed by a matriarch, estimated to be between 35 and 50 years old and named CA51, the family has been spotted in Beach Cities waters for three consecutive winters.
Like other transient killer whales, CA51 and her family roam the California coast in pursuit of food. Theirs is just one subset of the total population; others stick closer to home in the northeast Pacific. And like all killer whales, they possess a carnivorous appetite, a knack for hunting, and a high social intelligence.
Each year, Schulman-Janiger – founder of the California Killer Whale Project, director of the American Cetacean Society’s Los Angeles chapter’s Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, and co-author of a catalog chronicling killer whale activity in California – awaits their arrival.
Each year, she recognizes CA51 and her offspring by their genetically inherited markings. Much like a fingerprint, the shape of each orca’s dorsal fin, and the shape and patterns on the “saddle” behind its fin, are unique. An orca’s white eye patches can also serve as identifying features.
Another of the CA51 family’s distinguishing characteristics is its collective friendliness.
Like their mother, CA51’s offspring tend to unabashedly approach humans.
“She’s passed on this intense boat-friendly behavior to her kids,” Schulman-Janiger said of CA51. “I think part of it is innate, like a kid being curious. I was always a curious kid, always asking questions… Some kids are and some kids just aren’t. I think that’s genetic, but I think it’s culture, too, because if she brings them up to boats and they’re having a good time and playing in the bubbles that’s something they’re going to like and seek out on their own.”
Schulman-Janiger carefully records killer whale sightings, identifies whales in the wild and in photographs, and studies their behavior. She does it with a meticulousness and consistency that can only be motivated by passion.
“Seeing [these orcas] is not just a notch in my notepad,” Schulman-Janiger said. “It feels like I’m seeing friends again.”
Schulman-Janiger’s relationship with CA51 dates back to 2000, when she first spotted the orca and her two eldest offspring off Monterey. Because she was observed with her first calf in 1992, and orcas are generally at least 12 years old when they first give birth, she believes CA51 is between 35 and 50 years old.
Now, 22 years later, the orca is a mother to four and grandmother to two. Her 21-year-old daughter, named CA51A, has two offspring of her own. Gradually the adult is breaking away from her mother, and spending more time with her new family. She did not join her mother on the voyage to the South Bay this holiday season, or last.
CA51’s two male offspring – their ages are estimated to be 15 and about 10 – and her three-year-old female offspring also travel with her.
“The kids stay with their mom, kind of like the elephant,” Schulman-Janiger said. “Even though the males are bigger and more powerful, the moms rule the roost. The mothers are the queens and the kids basically follow her.”
The complexity of their social interactions is striking. There is a scene in Martin’s recent footage of CA51 lying on her side, holding her three-year-old in a tender embrace.
This is the kind of intimate, endearing moment that reminds Schulman-Janiger of how similarly whales and humans behave.
“There are so many parallels between us and them,” she said. “They can start having kids as early as 10 or 11 but usually they don’t have them until about 15, and then they have them into their late 40s. Their lives are so similar to ours.
“The females go through menopause yet continue to take care of the family. They’re the wise givers of knowledge. Daughters stay with their moms, generally, while they have their first kid [and] by the time she has her second kid, she’s head of her own unit.
“The kid rubbing against the mother and making noises, happy squeals of delight – they really feel, when you get to know them, like people. They’re people of the seas. They have super rich lives, and for us to get to share in that, for them to draw us into that, is such a pleasure and a treat and a gift.”
Up until 2007, the CA51 family had never been photographed south of Santa Barbara. That year, it was sighted off Malibu; the following year, it was seen off Dana Point. Since 2010, it has exhibited a partiality to the South Bay.
“There aren’t many common dolphins in Monterey and we have [thousands] and thousands,” Schulman-Janiger said. “The orcas eat sea lions for most of the year but I think the common dolphins are a treat for them.”
Common dolphins are abundant amongst the nearshore canyon on the seafloor off the Peninsula. This explains why they gravitated toward Palos Verdes, but not what brought them to local waters in the first place. Schulman-Janiger believes the answer is simple, child-like curiosity.
“I think what happened – and this is my own hypothesis – but there’s something called the explorer gene. If you have it, you’re the first kid to jump off a high dive. Certain people have it and some don’t,” she said. “I think this particular group is adventurous and likes checking out new places.”
She believes that several years ago, the orcas travelled south and liked what they saw. The next time CA51 visited, she brought another family along, and set to “playing tour guide.”
“They’re showing the others what’s going on, I think, because some of these other groups visit with CA51 and come back later, without her, and spend time here,” Schulman-Janiger said.
The tour guide theory has clout, given the CA51 family’s penchant for long-distance travel.
On Dec. 22 last year, they were spotted in Santa Barbara; the next day, they were in Redondo Beach. On Dec. 23 this year, they were off Point Vicente in Palos Verdes; Monday night, they were again sighted off Santa Barbara.
By Tuesday, an entirely different family had arrived in Redondo Beach waters.
The orcas are Schulman-Janiger’s foremost passion, but her voice reflects equal enthusiasm when she turns her attention to the gray whale.
With excitement she notes that the number of gray whale sightings this month shatters a 31-year record.
As of Dec. 30, 331 gray whales had been spotted from Palos Verdes – considerably more than any other December in recent history. The count in December 2011 — 194 — and in December of last year — 182 — are the only ones that came close. Typically, watchers spot around 70 whales over the course of the month.
These are numbers counted by trained volunteers called citizen scientists who man Point Vicente Interpretive Center on a rotational basis from December through May. Daily, they arrive with binoculars, and from sunrise to sunset, they watch.
They are part of the ACS/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, a shore-based study that Schulman-Janiger has directed and coordinated since 1984.
On Sunday, Dec. 29 alone, watchers recorded 33 gray whale sightings; the next day, they counted 32.
“Many of our gray whale census years we haven’t seen 33 grays for the whole month, let alone one day,” Schulman-Janiger said. “It’s an absolutely phenomenal year for grays.”
She does not subscribe to the theory that increased sightings imply a population boom. Rather, she believes whale behavior – or the behavior of these particular visitors – is changing.
“It’s not, as some people say, that the population boomed,” she said. “No, we’re just seeing more of them. There’s 21,000 gray whales, so if we’re seeing 300 that’s a very small part, but when we have 30 years of data of watching from the same area under variable conditions and the count is one-third higher than any other year, that’s substantial. That’s a trend.”
The gray whales are spending time closer to shore and surfacing more often, which means people are likelier to see them. Another possible reason for the increased sightings relates to unusually clear skies and remarkably little rainfall. Meteorologists are calling 2013 the driest in recorded history.
“And if we don’t have a whole lot of wind and fog and rain and we’re able to see really well,” Schulman-Janiger said, “chances are we’re going to see more whales.”
Schulman-Janiger is convinced her favorite orcas will be back this season, though there is no way to foretell their arrival.
“I wish I did know when they were going to show up,” she said. “I can only look at what they’ve done in the past and their tendencies. We saw them five times two days in a row right here, and it’s the third season in a row we’ve seen them five times in less than a month. I suspect we’ll be seeing them again soon.”
This hypothesis excites whale-watchers and whale-watching boat operators like Craig Stanton, who runs daily trips out of King Harbor aboard the 65-foot Voyager.
Voyager ran its first whale-watching excursion of the season the day after Christmas, and will operate through April.
Schulman-Janiger recommends both Voyager and Point Vicente Interpretive Center as vantage points for whale-watching. She encourages anyone who sees a whale to snap a photo and email it to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. These, she files in an archive to inform her long-term research. She also enjoys when people contact her – it’s a chance for her to talk whales.
“I can tell them, ‘This is so and so, and she’s had two kids and doesn’t like to come close to boats but likes to jump a lot,’ or ‘This one has killed gray whale calves,’” Schulman-Janiger said. “I’ll tell them the history, and as an educator I enjoy doing that. I like to share the joy and get others fired up the way I am,” she said, and then laughed. “I guess it’s pretty hard to be that fired up.”
To check updated whale sighting counts, visit http://www.acs-la.org/daily.htm.