Bears fans will always remember 1985; Dolphins diehards, the perfect season of 1972. For fans of whales in Southern California, 2014 may have been their magical year.
That’s because a patch of warm water that hovered off the coast for most of the year brought an influx of marine animals and birds rarely seen in the area. For many animal enthusiasts, the delight in the treasure trove of animal sightings continues into the new year.
“All my friends are heading out on boats, and everybody’s got their cameras out, because it’s like Christmas everyday,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a whale researcher. “You never know what you’re going to see out there.”
Schulman-Janiger, who is part of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society, said that she is unaware of another year that has had similar sightings.
The bonanza began in March with a visit by false killer whales, a type of dolphin that gets its name from its black coloring and pointy teeth. The dolphin is rarely seen in California waters, but Schulman-Janiger said more than 50 may have visited.
Then from May till July, watchers documented the appearance of Bryde’s whales. Schulman-Janiger said the species of whale is so rare, only about a dozen are believed to exist from California to Washington. She said four individuals were sighted off California.
Hundreds of pilot whales came in June, October and November. More than 50 sperm whales, including mothers and calves, visited Orange County in October. Lucky spotters also saw pygmy killer whales in October and Eastern Tropical Pacific killer whales in November.
Schulman-Janiger, who is also the director of the Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project for the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society, said that the warmer temperatures shifted the marine mammals’ food supply to Southern California waters at times during 2014.
“It’s all tied to the temperature. The temperature’s what controls kind of where the food’s going to go, and the food controls where these animals are going to go,” Schulman-Janiger said.
She said it’s impossible to know at this point, whether the 2015 whale watching season will be similar.
“It’s all has to do with those ocean conditions, and there’s no way to know in January what the conditions are going to be in March,” Schulman-Janiger said.
Still, she said the number of gray whales her group has sighted this season are the highest ever recorded for this time of the year.
“We’ve only missed gray whales on two days in December. Last year, we only missed them on one day. That’s unheard of in any other year,” Schulman-Janiger said. “There isn’t an off-season anymore.”
Sport fishing has also benefited from the warm water temperatures. Jacob Bekerejian, a dock manager at Marina Del Rey Sportfishing, said hundreds of tourists signed on for a chance to catch yellow fin tuna, which normally stick to tropical waters yet were a constant presence a few months ago.
He said other rare fish included opah, normally caught in deep ocean waters.
“We saw a total, this season, of six out there, and we were able to land two, and they were incidental bites,” Bekerejian said. “We have the tail of the guy up here in the office.”
Schulman-Janiger said that people more enthusiastic about watching marine life than catching it can help research by sharing photographs that they take.
“Anybody can get on a boat, with a camera, and collect photos, possibly of some sighting that hasn’t been made before,” Schulman-Janiger said. “That may be the only sighting of that individual ever in California, which is extremely important for long term research. The researchers aren’t out there very often, but there are people out every day on whale watching boats.”
Those photographs can help researchers identify individual marine mammals and aid in constructing a timeline of the animals’ travels. She said she would welcome high quality (non-cell phone) photographs taken by citizen scientists. Photographs can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org
Schulman-Janiger said that she expects more exciting sightings will occur soon.
“Just when we think that the excitement’s dialed down, something else happens, so I wouldn’t at all be surprised if sometime in the next month we get something really exciting going on,” she said.