Los Angeles, California: Breaching whales within a stone throw of the beach. Dolphins in the thousands frolicking in mile long columns. Killer whales slowly swimming just under the surface, their high dorsal fins undulating through the air.

Is it Hawaii? Patagonia? Some far off wild land?
No, its Los Angeles' own San Pedro Channel viewed from the Point Vicente Interpretative Center in Rancho Palos Verdes. Each Year dozens of dedicated volunteer researchers use this spectacular viewing platform to count and record migrating gray whales on their journey to and from feeding grounds in the Arctic and breeding lagoons in Baja.

For over a dozen years, the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Cetacean Society, a nonprofit whale conservation and information organization, has been conducting a census on the near shore migration of the Pacific Gray whale. From December to May, dawn till dusk, volunteer whale spotters scan the ocean for the telltale blows of the whales to record their passage by Los Angeles.

The information gathered is used by researchers to study the come-back of the first whale taken off the endangered species list. During peak weeks, they may sight from 50 to 100 of these 40-foot barnacle-encrusted cetaceans (whales and dolphins) a day. They also record sightings of the over twenty other species of marine mammals that can be found in L.A. waters.

A partial list of other marine mammals seen from Point Vicente include the blue, fin, sperm and minke whale; common, bottlenose whitesided and Rissos dolphin; killer whale and false killer whale; California sea lion, and the elephant and harbor seal. And because of their constant vigil during the whale watch season, the volunteers have, on occasion, assisted boats and planes in distress, and even helped rescue a young gray whale entangled in a lobster trap line by using telephones and emergency radios to call for help and to guide rescuers to the scene.

Unlike most research projects, the census actively recruits whale spotters from the general public. Amongst the occupations represented by volunteers from past years were airline pilots, teachers, nurses, aerospace workers, movie industry professionals, students and retirees. Some volunteer for a day, some throughout the entire migrations season. A few even come from out of state. The only requirement is an interest in whales and a pair of binoculars.

Hugh T. Ryono

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