Alisa Schulman-Janiger has logged so many volunteer hours at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center’s bluff side patio in Rancho Palos Verdes, that she might as well claim it as her primary residence.
“I dream about killer whales; they’re my passion” said the independent researcher and marine biologist, her blond hair blowing in the breeze at her home away from home.
On Monday, Dec. 17, those dreams came true.
“It was about 9:58 a.m.,” she said. “At least four killer whales were headed east, about two miles offshore. About a mile ahead of the whales, a pod of Pacific white-sided dolphins raced at top speed directly toward us. The killer whales ignored them and slowly traveled headed east. They came within a mile of shore.”
The volunteers watched the pod for about an hour. With the orcas out of sight, Schulman-Janiger and her friend, Eric Martin, the co-director of Manhattan Beach’s Roundhouse Aquarium, jumped into his small boat to search for them.
When they found the pod an hour later, the whales had made a kill and it was party time.
“The whales were celebrating,” Schulman-Janiger said, describing the scene. “Sea birds were shrieking, flying low picking up scraps. The whales were breaching, spy hopping; lob tailing, playing with kelp on their flukes, swimming upside down, and approaching near by boats.”
Schulman-Janiger describes the CA51 orca pod as friendly. That’s an understatement.
“(Orcas) travel in family groups; they’re almost like people in the ocean,” said Schulman-Janiger.
Indeed, this pod has a mom: Star and grown children: sons Bumper and Orion, and daughter Comet. The killer whale family has habituated to boats, according to Schulman-Janiger.
“They’ll rub on the boat, look at the passengers, and go ‘EEEEE—’ vocalizing like crazy. They’re so interesting, for example one time a male orca killed a sea lion, brought it over to our boat, and stopped—as if to say ‘look what I’ve got.’”
During Monday’s whale chase, Bumper actually went under the tiny boat the researchers were steering and popped up to take a look.
“It was amazing!,” exclaimed Schulman-Janiger.
The biologists stayed with the pod for most of the day and finally left them at 3:45 p.m. off Redondo Beach with the whales heading toward Pt. Dume.
Blue whale matchmaker
Whales have intrigued Schulman-Janiger since she was a 12-year-old reading library books by Jane Goodall (chimpanzees) and John Lilly (bottlenose dolphins).
That’s when she said she had her ah-ha! moment.
“I was struck by how both books were about highly intelligent charismatic megafauna that had close associations and rich emotional lives—and that my life’s path seemed to point toward focusing on one of these—higher primates, versus cetaceans.”
She also thought studying the lives of individual dolphins and whales “held more promise for a potential career in California.”
Schulman-Janiger, who is also a research associate with the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, lives in San Pedro with husband David Janiger. He’s the assistant collections manager for marine mammals at the museum.
And fittingly, their matchmaker was a blue whale, (Balaenoptera musculus) the biggest animal to ever live.
“My husband and I had a whale connection from the very beginning,” she said, eyes twinkling. “We met on a dead juvenile blue whale that was pushed into the Port of Los Angeles by a ship that had struck it off Ensenada.”
Full season census
Schulman-Janiger’s career has always had a whale connection.
In 1978, she was working in the Cabrillo Whale Watch program, which taught docents about marine mammals. Around the same time, a few workers at Marineland started a small gray whale census for an hour or two a day. She was interested—it sounded like fun, but she was too busy with school and work to participate.
The small census eventually fizzled out and on January 1, 1984, Schulman-Janiger started her own gray whale full season census with the
American Cetacean Society, Los Angeles Chapter titled Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project.
Over the past 36 years, Schulman-Janiger has trained hundreds of volunteers (citizen scientists) to spot, track and record the Pacific gray whales’ annual migration from December 1st through late May.
“The first year was the best year,” she said, thinking back. “We had the best weather, the least amount of fog, and very little wind or rain. It was a la nina year and the whales happened to come closer. We had 3,412 northbound grey whales that year. I thought, well, this will be easy, but it hasn’t been like that since.”
When Schulman-Janiger started the program there were about 18,000 gray whales. Today there are about 27,000.
But the census volunteers don’t see anywhere those numbers. Most of the whales that migrate to Mexico don’t come close to shore.
“They migrate through the Channel Islands,” she said. “When they hit Point Conception, they fan out through the Channel Islands, which is farther out than we can see. The biggest percentage of whales is out by the islands and smaller numbers of them migrate in the middle; the smaller portions of whales choose the close to shore migratory route. Last year we recorded over 900 southbound whales and over 2,000 northbound whales.”
Schulman-Janiger was a naturalist on a whale watch boat one day when her role model, Jane Goodall was a passenger.
“It was the most amazing trip full of an astounding number of species—the most that Condor Express had ever seen on one trip. It was surreal,” said the marine biologist.
Did Goodall give her any advice?
“Yes,” Schulman-Janiger said with a smile. “She told me to ‘Find my passion; follow my dreams.’”