Marine Life Passing Through The Catalina Channel

Marine Life Passing Through The Catalina Channel

As the Catalina Channel swimming season gets underway (although Steve Stievenart did a rare February crossing in 13 hours 41 minutes), whales continue to migrate northward right through the channel swimming course.

The volunteers of the American Cetacean Society Los Angeles Chapter who watch the Pacific Ocean from their Point Vicente viewpoint count the number and type of migrating whales every day (see data below).

Teams of trained volunteers from the American Cetacean Society, the Cabrillo Whalewatch Program, and the general public position themselves on the cliffs above Catalina Channel at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center. Census Director Alisa Schulman-Janiger explains, “We have great views of marine life from our cliffside post 125 feet above sea level, where the water depth abruptly drops off close to shore.

This station runs from December through late May during daylight hours, seven days a week. The official project binoculars are Fujinon 7Ч50, with built-in reticles and compass. All participants use binoculars, and several confirm and detail sightings with spotting scopes. Weather data, including visibility and sea conditions, are recorded at least hourly. Observers identify and record various marine mammals and their behaviors, focusing on gray whales.

Because the majority of gray whales use off-shore migratory routes in this area (primarily through the Channel Islands), especially on the southbound migration, we see only a small proportion of the total gray whale population, so our counts cannot be used to determine that population.

Instead, our project focuses on ascertaining seasonal usage of the nearshore migratory path, and documents changing trends over time. Variable weather and shifts in migratory path preferences result in annual counts that fluctuate dramatically, which does not necessarily mean the gray whale population is likewise fluctuating. We especially detail calf sighting in both the southbound and northbound migration, which helps track trends in calf recruitment.

Spotters also detail migratory behaviors observed, including breaching, spyhopping, rolling, courtship, apparent nursing, possible feeding, and interaction with kelp and with other marine mammals. Participants also note possible human impacts on gray whales, including boat interactions, possible harassment incidents, and entanglements.

In addition, we identify and record behaviors of any other marine mammals that utilize these waters, including common dolphin, Pacific bottlenose dolphin, Pacific white-sided dolphin, Risso’s dolphin, northern right whale dolphin, killer whales, false killer whales, pilot whales, Dall’s porpoise, sperm whales, minke whales, humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, California sea lions, harbor seals, northern elephant seals, and southern sea otters.

When possible, attempts are made to cross-check and augment notes on individually identifiable cetaceans with photos and behavior data collected from commercial and private whale watching boats.

For more information, visit here.

Catalina Channel census whiteboard with closing Census shift (left to row, upper row): Jo Bonds, Gregg Gentry, Liliana Ghelfi, Iva Maes, Gerrie Teague Cole, Chad Sprouse. (Lower row): Sjors, Census Director Alisa Schulman-Janiger, Agi Rutkai.

Bottlenose dolphin swimming through the coastal kelp photography by Census Director Alisa Schulman-Janiger.

Daily updates are posted on the group’s Facebook page here.

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Steven Munatones