The number of gray whales spotted migrating south off the Southern California coast in December was double what it was compared with the same period last year, raising questions about whether it reflects changing migration patterns or perhaps a population boom for the once endangered species.
From their perch high above the water at Point Vicente in Rancho Palos Verdes, whale spotters in December counted 364 gray whales heading south to Baja California. Volunteers counted 182 during the same period in 2012.
The record count is far higher than in 2010, when observers saw just 38 gray whales in December. The difference is prompting researchers to ask whether a migration shift is underway or if there is some other explanation.
"You can see how this year blows all those years away," said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director of the American Cetacean Society/Los Angeles Chapter's Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project. "It will actually take some time before we can figure out why because the migration hasn't peaked yet."
More than 20,000 gray whales migrate each year from Arctic waters in the north to the shallow lagoons and bays of Baja California. Volunteers for the census project work around the clock from Dec. 1 through May 15, looking for whales from the vantage point at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center.
Hunted to near extinction in the early 1900s, the whales were declared endangered in 1973 but were taken off the list in 1994 after the population boomed.
But Schulman-Janiger said the higher December counts in recent years do not necessarily mean the population is experiencing a boom. It could just be changing migration patterns, or the fact that spotters benefited from better visibility, she said.
"What we are looking at is trends, trends in migratory timing and trends in distribution," Schulman-Janiger said. "This year, what we are seeing is a huge jump in the numbers."
Whale-watching tour operators have also seen a huge jump — in customers.
Dan Salas of Harbor Breeze Cruises in Long Beach said the "ocean has just absolutely come alive" this season.
The excitement generated by the influx of whales has drawn tourists and Angelenos to the tours in ways Salas said he has never seen. Over the last weekend, his business doubled, causing him to add more boats to the schedule, he said.
"The gray whales this year are just incredible," he said.
But the extra boat traffic can be bruising, or worse, for the whales. Schulman-Janiger said "overeager" whale watchers on boats or jet skis can run over the whales, injuring them.
"Travel with care; this is their world," she said. "I know people get excited, but you've got to give them their space."