Whale Watching at Bodega Head, Sonoma County
A Thrilling Show...
Gray Whales at Bodega Head
by Norma Jellison, Whale Watch Docent
The word is out finally that we have quite a show going on at Bodega Head. That would be feeding Pacific Gray Whales (Eschrichtius robustus) so close in that you feel like you can reach out and touch them. You certainly can see their blows, their barnacles, the bumps - what looks like knuckles - actually their vertebrae along their backs and even good looks at their flukes/tails.
A number of Pacific Gray Whales have been feeding off the Head all summer. Currently, there are consistently at least 12, composed of calves, adults and juveniles. Moving from Mussel Point to just south of the Head most days, they have resulted in a packed parking lot and hundreds of folks lining the bluffs most weekends. Applause and cheering is often heard among the crowd. These consistent close up views are thrilling to all, and certainly a highly unusual occurrence. After all they should be in Alaska. In fact, the last time we had over summering Gray Whales at the Head was in 2001, and then only for a couple of months.
So why are they here this summer? In a word, food. The ocean is experiencing an amazing bloom of krill. Krill, tiny shrimp-like crustaceans, are a food source for many ocean inhabitants – pelagic birds like Common Murrre, Shearwaters and Albatross to name a few, marine mammals like seals, sea lions, dolphins and baleen whales like Humpbacks and Blues, and of course fish like our iconic salmonids. Upwelling is responsible for the extremely rich ocean environment off the Northern California coast. The cold, nutrient-rich waters historically common off our coast have not been as dependably present or timely in recent years, sometimes to the detriment of many species that depend on it for food. This year conditions are back to normal.
But krill don't normally make up a large portion of the Gray Whale's diet. Rather, Grays are bottom feeders that predominantly eat amphipods, tiny benthic crustaceans, that live in the muddy bottom of cold, rich Arctic waters like the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Grays feed by sifting the “vacuumed” mud and water through their baleen and licking off the amphipods left behind. They feed all summer long until the seas begin to ice up and then head south to the lagoons on the Pacific side of Baja to mate and give birth.
Gray Whales depend on the blubber stored from the summer eating frenzy to sustain them on their 5-6,000 mile migration south, the time spent in the lagoons, and the return trip north back to their Arctic feeding grounds. We now know from research that Grays opportunistically feed during the migration. Still most of their sustenance for their migration comes from blubber stores.
We also know of several locations along the migration route where Grays stop and are resident for the summer. Grays have consistently been seen around the Farallon Islands in recent summers. Around 250 Grays are resident along the Oregon coast from about Memorial Day to October. For the last 10 years, 72 identified whales have returned year after year to Depoe Bay where they eat mysid shrimp (Newell). And Grays also feed off Vancouver Island in British Columbia (Darling et al;Dumas et al).
So why are they here in Bodega Bay this summer? Since we can't ask them, we can speculate based on what we know about current ocean conditions, conditions in Alaska waters last summer, reports from the lagoons, the food in the ocean off our coast and the examples above of residents along the West coast.
It all adds up to one heck of a show at Bodega Head, at least until they head south. Will this become another location where some number of Pacific Gray Whale will become resident, over summering with more regularity? Time will tell. Hopefully, photos taken this year will allow us to see distinctive markings and compare the whales here this year with those of 2001 and those that might come again next year.
In the meantime, if you haven't been out yet, do come and see for yourself how amazingly close they are and what a thrill it is to see them feeding away, oblivious to our cheers and claps on the bluffs above.
WHALE WATCH DOCENTS NEEDED
Whale Watch, a California State Parks, “Volunteers in Parks” program will be having a volunteer Orientation and Training, Saturday, November 13th 9:00 am – 1:30 pm at the Bodega Bay Grange Hall, located on the corner of Highway #1 and Bodega Avenue in Bodega Bay, (1370 Bodega Avenue). For over two decades Whale Watch Docents have assisted visitors at Bodega Head in observing these 40 ton Pacific Gray Whale giants as they migrate along our coast.
Training includes: the natural history of Gray whales, and responsibilities of volunteering for California State Parks. Bring a lunch and warm clothing for a visit to Bodega Head.
Bea Brunn at 526-9153 or
Ruby Herrick at 869-9177 X1# EM: firstname.lastname@example.org
or visit our website at www.stewardsofthecoastandredwoods.org
CALIFORNIA STATE PARKS
In Cooperation with
Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods
Russian River District
State Park Interpretive Association