Whale Counters Take to Their Task Isolated but Uplifted

Times Staff Writer

Mark Palmer, a UCLA graduate student, is in the midst of one whale of a busman's holiday. Palmer, who usually researches diminutive lymphocytes in a biology lab, has traded his microscope for binoculars in order to search the seas for massive leviathans.

Along with 20 other volunteers from the American Cetacean Society, the Mar Vista resident has camped out on top of a remote ridge on Santa Catalina's breathtaking west end to help conduct a census of gray whales as they pass the island on their annual 11,000-mile migration between the freezing Arctic waters and the balmy lagoons of Baja California.

"I usually do microbiology research, but this is macrobiology," said Palmer, 28, who arrived at the rugged vantage point Monday for a one-week stint. "I've always been torn between marine biology and things that are practical--where you can really address questions and get an answer. It's more philosophical out here (counting whales)--we really will never know exactly why whales breach."

Better Information

By now, however, Palmer added, the census-takers certainly have a better idea of whether--and where--the whales are breaching (leaping almost entirely above the surface), spyhopping (raising their bodies perpendicular to the water) or plain old spouting.

During the first seven weeks of a planned eight-week survey, the cetacean counters have sighted 413 gray whales from their windswept 600-foot-high perch--where they can clearly view the sun-soaked ocean from Santa Cruz Island south to San Clemente Island.

Meanwhile, fellow leviathan enthusiasts gazing forth from a promontory at Marineland have spotted another 784 whales whose southbound routes have more closely hugged the California coast.

"We're just as crazy as bird watchers," said David Janiger, a coordinator of the dual census. "The first sperm whale I ever saw, the adrenalin started flowing, I'll tell you."

The census, said director Alicia Schulman, is intended to provide ongoing data about the migratory and behavioral patterns of gray whales for the Cetacean Society and for Whalewatch, an organization based at the Cabrillo Marine Museum in San Pedro, which sponsors boat trips to view the whales.

This year's study will also provide initial data concerning the impact of whale watching boats on the routes of the popular 50-foot-long mammals, Schulman said.

Specifically, she explained, some experts have expressed fears that members of the Eschrichtius robustus family--which often pass within a couple hundred yards of shore--are beginning to travel farther out to avoid the ever-increasing flotilla of pleasure craft loaded with gawking Homo sapiens.

"Boats definitely do have an impact," said Schulman, who leads ocean field trips for Los Angeles schoolchildren when she is not serving as a Whalewatch volunteer. "On some days the whales approach the boats--and on some days they evade the boats."

John Olguin, associate director of the museum, believes that the findings so far bode well for Whalewatch.

"You read that the boats are harassing the whales and they're going on the other side of the channel," Olguin spouted. "Well, you know (the results show) it's right down the middle and it's been that way from the beginning of time--the whale boats do not have an effect on them."

Schulman, cautioned, however, that any conclusions are preliminary. "You need pretty much three consecutive years to spot trends," she said.

Marineland Study

While this winter's full-fledged Catalina study is the society's first, a similar study at Marineland was conducted last year. Through the first week of February, 1984, counters had spotted 710 whales just off the Palos Verdes Peninsula, compared to the 784 so far this year.

In coming years, Schulman said, society members hope to win government or foundation grants to continue their work. The census-takers--who range from students to scientists to retirees--raised $1,500 this year for expenses, mainly through a garage sale.

Whatever the vagaries of future funding, it appears that the volunteers will be more than willing to continue undertaking their chores. Indeed, their tenacity seems to rival that of the estimated 18,000 gray whales that migrate back and forth through the Pacific each year.

To reach their windswept work site--jokingly dubbed Camp Censeless--the volunteers have taken two-hour, four-wheel-drive Jeep rides from Avalon, courtesy of the Catalina Conservancy, the organization that preserves the pristine condition of the island's interior. Conservancy naturalist Terry Martin, who is doubling as chauffeur, calls the dirt paths "roads." To a mainlander, though, it seems as if Martin is traversing terrain as steep as San Francisco's Transamerica building.

On Their Own

Once safely deposited at the base camp--at the northwest tip of Catalina about half a mile from their viewing post--the weekly groups of two to four census-takers are on their own. Their only links to civilization are Martin's midweek visits and a once-a-day marine band radio call to the mainland.

The existence may be isolated, participants say, but it is certainly not bleak.

Whenever the telltale 10-foot-high, heart-shaped spout of a whale is sighted, group members spring into action, taking notes on the creature's size, distinguishing marks and behavior.

"We bring up lunch, set up a tripod and take turns scanning the horizon," explained Carol Ball, 28, of San Pedro. "It's an eight-hour day."

The 40-ton whales that pass by Catalina at about 5 m.p.h. usually swim within a few hundred yards of shore, volunteers said, sometimes frolicking for several minutes near an offshore rock just below the census-takers' lofty perch. One recent group of counters spotted an average of five a day.

When no whales are within view, the volunteers commune with other creatures.

Quite a Variety

"We have four mice that visit us, and a herd of 24 wild goats, and two ravens," said Ian De Voy, 45, of Toronto, one of the few non-local volunteers. "There are also sea lions and seals, a couple gray squirrels and several finches that give us a show once in a while. In fact, we were dive-bombed by swifts that fly a foot over our head--so it's not dull at all."

The volunteers, seated on beach chairs while basking in the smog-free sunshine, also regale each other with whale stories. Veterans boast of their visits to the Baja lagoons, placing a special premium on having petted a gray whale or having watched them mate.

De Voy said the survey is a unique 9-to-5 vocation--even for "a roamer" like himself.

"We have so much here," emphasized the part-time photographer, actor and stage director who spent the first week of February taking part in the census. "It's wild and dramatic to see the clouds come in over the mountains. It's hard to find words for."

Schulman herself has has spent three weeks at the camp. "But I wish it were 50," said the 30-year-old volunteer. "I don't ever get tired of the ocean or anything having to do with the ocean."

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