Finding a migrating whale mother and her baby

Two gray whales were spotted near the shores of Long Beach on a Harbor Breeze Cruises tour

Video by Joy Rowden | Signal Tribune

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During this time of the year, the number of gray-whale sightings increases near the shores of Long Beach, according to experts.

On Wednesday, Jan. 23, Harbor Breeze Cruises partnered with the Aquarium of the Pacific to invite the media on a whale-watching boat excursion on the M/V La Espada catamaran.

Photos by Antonio Jorgensen
Commons dolphins are pictured at a distance jumping in and out of the water during Harbor Breeze Cruises’ whale-watching tour on Wednesday, Jan. 23.

James Stewart is the boat’s program coordinator and a naturalist for the Aquarium of the Pacific. He was one of the narrators on-deck during the excursion and spoke about whale migration, pregnancy and conservation efforts.

Other experts onboard were Cpt. Dan Salas, CEO of Harbor Breeze Cruises, and Nilda Parrado, vice president of operations of Harbor Breeze Cruises.

“We can see gray whales, like we saw this morning,” Stewart said. “[We can see] humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales. Those are the most frequently-seen whales on watch.”

According to Stewart, several dolphin species have also been seen on the whale-watching tours, such as bottlenose, Risso’s, common and Pacific white-sided.

A gray-whale mother and her newborn baby were the only two whales spotted on the tour. The whales did not breach the surface, but, instead, their silhouettes and parts of their body were visible. Whale watchers first noticed the pair when they noticed water spewing from their blowholes.

Experts said the expectation for the whales to breach was low, because the mother was with her baby, who is still a developing swimmer.

“So, that is called a cow-calf pair,” Stewart said. “That mom is migrating with her baby. She was pregnant, and she [has] started her southbound migration to Mexico. And, sometimes, they [the whales] have their baby during their migration when they get to warmer waters. But, ideally, they are trying to get as far south as possible, because the baby doesn’t have any blubber, which is the protective fat layer that keeps them [the baby whales] warm.”

A gray-whale mother and her baby surface the water to breathe during the joint whale-watching excursion with Harbor Breeze Cruises and the Aquarium of the Pacific on Wednesday, Jan. 23.

Gray whales will also migrate to Mexico to socialize and mate with other whales, according to Stewart.

Gray- and humpback-whale sightings are most common in the winter and springtime. However, humpback whales can be seen throughout the entire year, as well, Stewart said.

“Blue whales, we only see during the summer,” he said. “Fin whales, our strongest sightings are in the winter, but we’ll see them throughout the whole year.”

Large whales are facing struggles with ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear, and Stewart mentioned that the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports provide monetary compensation for boats that decrease their speed about 25 miles out before entering the ports.

“That is an incentive,” Stewart said. “For one, they [the boats] will use less fuel and pollute less in the air, but they also have the chance to see whales before they actually strike them. The other thing is, if we support sustainable and responsible fishing practices or fisheries, then we are less likely to incite the chance of an entanglement.”

On the way back to the dock, riders got to see Pacific-white sided and common dolphins riding the waves generated by the M/V La Espada.

“The common dolphins played in our wake and were bow riding in front of us at times,” Stewart said.

The Aquarium of the Pacific and Harbor Breeze Cruises have partnered together since 2008 to provide the public with whale-watching tours. Harbor Breeze Cruises departs every day, with the exception of Christmas Day, at noon and 3 pm for the public. The tour is approximately two to two-and-a-half hours long. Tickets are priced at $49.95 for adults (12 and up), $33.95 for children and $45.95 for seniors (ages 62 and up).