For the first time in nearly four decades, no one is there to watch the whales.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger and a team of volunteers have perched up on the cliff top at the Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Rancho Palos Verdes for 37 years, 12 hour a day from Dec. 1 through May 25.
They watch whales off Southern California's coast on their journey from Mexico to Alaska – sometimes they can be seen feeding, other times they frolic, occasionally they mate – always, until now, under observation.
But with the park, trails and and Point Vicente Interpretive Center shut down by the coronavirus-related stay-at-home order, it's the first time the whales won’t be observed for an extensive database that documents the whale species – information vital in tracking how healthy the species is, how many are showing up near the coast or how many newborns are making the long trek and more.
“I’m in shock, I can’t believe it,” said Schulman-Janiger, who runs the annual American Cetacean Society/LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project. “I keep thinking, ‘How are they doing’? I’m still in shock trying to accept it.”
This year’s documentation is especially important as the gray whales are still under an Unusual Mortality Event following a deadly year in 2019 when more than 200 whales were found dead during their journey, many washing up on Southern California beaches.
But with whale watching boats shut down and others along the West Coast ushered off cliffs and told to stay at home, no one will know how the whales are faring this year. The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, which runs the government's Gray Whale Census, had planned to further study their northbound migration and the number of calves born.
“A lot of money was freed up to study them, with drone technology, photo analysis and necropsies,” Schulman-Janiger said.
She suspects this year may be as deadly as last year, with early indicators such as a later-than-normal appearance as they headed south to the lagoons, more skinny whales than usual, an early northbound migration and not many calves reported down in Mexico. She was around the last time there was a Unusual Mortality Event put in place 20 years ago, that one lasting a few years.
“Even if there are occasional sighting that will not give us an idea. That cannot replace 12 hours of counting whales,” she said. “Even if whales die, there’s not teams of people who can help them. We can’t respond to it. We can’t take the dolphin or whale to the Natural History Museum because they are shut down.”
Just before the gray whale census shut down last week, there was a surge in sightings. On March 14, there were 73 whales spotted in one day, and a few days later there were 63.
“We just had the peak, but we’ll never know for sure, because we weren’t there,” she said.
So far this year, there’s been 49 deaths reported; 43 in Mexico – similar figures to last year’s at this same time. Five deaths so far have happened along California's coast, according to NOAA's latest report on March 13.
Last year, more deaths occurred along the West Coast as the whales traveled north to their feeding destination in Alaska.
Schulman-Janiger started the gray whale census program in 1984. Previously, there had been a part-time project, but her's is the first full-time census that logs every day during the season.
Gray whales were almost hunted to extinction in the 1800s. At one point, there were fewer than 2,000, according to the Marine Mammal Center. But with protections put in place, their numbers were allowed to rebound.
The gray whales were removed from the Endangered Species List in 1994, the first mammal to be taken off the list. Today their population estimates are at about 26,000.