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Half Moon Bay Gray Whale Watch Sightings: March 2015

By Nancy Heaton

Following are the naturalists' sightings reports from our Half Moon Bay gray whale watching programs during March 2015.

A gray whale seen along the coast in March 2015. © Izzy Szczepaniak


Date: March 28 & 29, 2015
Saturday’s Half Moon Bay gray whale watching tour headed slowly south about 15 miles, then north again to the harbor. The morning was nice with a few whitecaps and swell, but the trip got rougher heading north again, with more wind and lots of whitecaps and swell in the afternoon. As sometimes happens with wild animals, there were no whales to be seen. The group saw 15 California sea lions at the harbor entrance and at the buoys.

Participants on Sunday’s trip saw 6 gray whales. They headed out under good weather conditions, although high swell of 4-6 feet prevented great photos. They moved south to the 1-S buoy, and spotted a single harbor porpoisenear the buoy. As they turned north they spotted two blows and found a gray whale cow with a calf. The whales moved slowly but steadily north over the shallow rocky reefs that help create the huge Maverick waves, and then along the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve. They surfaced at a steady rate, with the boat following them for 60 minutes, able to anticipate each surfacing series. Even closer to shore was another cow-calf pair. The boat stayed with the whales until they turned offshore heading in the direction of Point Reyes.

Other wildlife included Velella velella, the electric blue, glass-like sea creatures (part of the diverse phylum of animals including corals and jellyfish), normally found floating on the surface of warm and temperate oceans, and Fucellia evermanni or kelp fly.

Species of sea birds sighted on both trips included: common loons, a western grebe, 50 brown pelicans, 2 double breasted cormorants 3 Brandt’s cormorants, 6 pelagic cormorants, 15 surf scoter, a Heermann’s gull, California gull, western gull and common murre.


Date: March 21 & 22, 2015
Another spectacular weekend of whale watching! Saturday afternoon’s gray whale watching trip started off slowly, encountering two migrating whales heading north after about 45 minutes. The boat then headed south and found several groups of gray whales traveling north. Suddenly they found two different groups, about 200 yards from each other, exhibiting mating-like behavior, rolling around on top of each other, showing lots of flukes. A third whale started to approach, then left. Bird watchers enjoyed coot, brown pelican, double breasted cormorant, Pelagic cormorant, western gull and common gull sightings .

Sunday morning passengers left in good weather with some wind chop, spray, and 1 to 2 foot swells. The boat headed west 5 miles, then south 7 miles to the harbor with whale spouts everywhere and counted a total of 25 whales! Other unusual sights included a sea lion eating a leopard shark next to the boat. And three cows with their calves were sighted with calf heads breaching out of the water, then total breaching five times.

Sunday afternoon continued to be a beautiful day, sunny almost all day with only partly cloudy. Winds were light, less than 10 knots. Visibility was excellent with a swell of only 2 feet. The boat headed north to the PP buoy, followed whales north, went south, found more whales and followed them north for a time. The whales were rowdy, engaging in mating behavior, one breaching, another whale breached and the group observed one spy hopping whale. The boat headed south to Kelly’s Beach then north along coast.

Bird species sighted Sunday included Pacific loon, common loon, eared grebe, brown pelican, double crested cormorant, Brandt’s cormorant, pelagic cormorant, surf scoter, bufflehead duck, black oystercatcher, western gull, common murre, thick-billed murre and pidgeon guillemot.

This incredible video from Sunday afternoon's encounter with mating gray whales was shared with us by Bobby Gendron, a passenger on that trip. After spotting the whales approximately 200 yards away, the captain shut off the engines and let the boat drift. Seemingly oblivious to us, the whales drifted alongside our boat for more than 30 minutes, coming within a few feet of us at one point.


Date: March 14 & 15, 2015
This weekend was spectacular for marine mammal observation. Saturday morning’s conditions were perfect for sighting whales: clear skies, small swell and light winds. A total of nine gray whales and two humpbacks were reported. Twenty minutes after leaving Pillar Point Harbor the group encountered a humpback whale traveling north within a mile of land. The boat followed the whale for about 30 minutes during which time the whale dove numerous times lifting its flukes out of the water and allowing the group to get ID photos. A second humpback whale was seen, but the group was unable to re-sight it.

While following the humpback whale, a number of blows were seen in the distance. There were 2 groups of gray whales about 200 yards apart. Both groups were very active. Flippers and flukes were visible as the whales were rolling at the surface of the water. The boat headed toward one group and passengers could see that the whales were very close to one another and even touching each other as they rolled at the surface. Several times one of the whales swam on top of another whale pushing the other’s head under the water. While passengers watched the first whale group, the second group was engaging in the same type of behavior. The second group closed the distance between the groups and soon six animals were engaging in “rowdy” behavior that we associate with mating. On many occasions we saw whales turn on their sides with their small pectoral flippers raised. Several times, while rolling on their sides, one of the whales lifted its head above the surface water so that we could see its mouth and two throat grooves. The captain turned off the engines and sat still in the water while this “mating-like” behavior continued. A group of three whales came close to the boat and we saw a whale penis come out of the water confirming that this was mating behavior.

Gray whales engaged in mating behavior in March 2015. © Izzy Szczepaniak

This “rowdy” activity continued for over an hour and then suddenly all activity stopped and the whales were gone.

Sunday morning’s group headed 5 miles west of the harbor and saw 15 gray whales rolling around and over each other right next to the boat, showing tails, flippers and backs. They followed the whales 7 miles north. Whales were spouting everywhere! And passengers saw one small spy hop and a horizontal breach by whales.

The Sunday afternoon group headed southwest for eight miles, then southeast five miles, then northwest three miles before heading back to the harbor. Passengers saw 10 whales, four were just 25 yards from the boat. Equally entertaining were lots of harbor porpoises and hundreds, if not thousands, of long-beaked common dolphins (with babies) actively feeding. The boat moved with the dolphin group for roughly an hour.

Bird species sighted over the weekend included pacific loon, common loon, eared grebe, brown pelican, double crested cormorant, Brandt’s cormorant, pelagic cormorant, surf scoter, buffelhead ducks, black oystercatcher, western gull, common murre, and pigeon guillemot.


Date: March 7 & 8, 2015
Saturday morning's gray whale watching trip headed out on a clear, calm, sunny day. Just offshore, passengers sighted a gray whale and watched for about 15 minutes. All saw blow, but hardly any of the whale was visible. Saturday afternoon’s group saw 4 gray whales; two surfaced repeatedly with good views of them sounding, swimming, and blowing. Both groups also saw California sea lions: two in the morning and four in the afternoon. Morning bird watchers saw common loons, 2 black vented shearwaters, 25 double breasted cormorants, 4 pelagic cormorants, 15 surf scoters, 3 Heermann’s gulls, 2 glaucous-winged gulls and 10 rhinoceros auklets. The afternoon group saw 2 red throated loons, a pacific loon and a common loon, 2 eared loons, 4 western grebes, 2 black-vented shearwaters, 25 brown pelicans, 25 double breasted cormorants, 30 Brandt’s cormorants, 5 pelagic cormorants, 12 surf scoters, 4 Herrmann’s gulls, 20 Western gulls, 4 glaucous winged gulls and 5 rhinoceros auklets.

Participants on Sunday morning’s Half Moon Bay gray whale watching trip headed out on another beautiful day with surface chop, a swell of 1-3 feet, and winds at 10 knots. The group traveled 5 miles past the Pedro Point buoy, then south to Martin’s beach and east a mile offshore before heading north back to the harbor. Two gray whales were seen and followed, one breached 7 times! Species of birds reported included a common loon, eared grebe and western grebe, brown pelicans, double breasted cormorant, surf scoter, Western gull and common murre.

Author

Nancy Heaton is Oceanic Society's former Local Programs Coordinator based in Ross, CA, USA.