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A 50-FOOT, 30-TON ANIMAL SHOOTING OUT OF THE WATER LEAVES A LASTING IMPRESSION


“There’s no reason why they have to do it because of temperature,” said National Oceanic and Atmo- spheric Administration fisheries biologist Wayne Perryman, describing the mystery of the gray whale migration. Biologists have long sought to understand the reason for the long, arduous migration. The spe- cies’ rich feeding grounds are perched atop the planet in the Arctic, but each year members of the Eastern Pacific population of gray whales swim at a relatively steady three knots southward through the Bering Strait, along the coast of Alaska and Canada, through the shallow coastal waters off Washington and Or- egon, down through California, funneling through the Santa Barbara Channel, along the Baja, California coast and into a few select lagoons with welcoming warm water where life begins for nearly all members of the magnificent, if somewhat mysterious, species. The newborns can tolerate much colder tempera- tures than the birthing grounds provide, which rules out the obvious reason for the animals to leave the well-stocked Arctic buffet. One widely accepted theory for the migration, Perryman explained, is predator avoidance. By moving for a large portion of the year, the whales keep themselves from becoming a blub- bery buffet for their main predator, the killer whale.


For whatever reason gray whales decided to swim into their evolutionary niche, they fill the role with strength and grace, meanwhile providing Carpinteri- ans with an annual phenomenon to anticipate each winter and spring. In mid-December, the Santa Barba- ra channel becomes the gray whale interstate highway with traffic in the southbound lanes. Pregnant females lead the pack, eager to lose the extra 2,000 pounds of baby weight. Males, juveniles and breeding females follow in a second wave.


“It’s kind of like Club Med,” said Perryman, explain- ing that breeding behavior is common in the second wave of whales.


Soon after the southbound traffic slows, the north- bound journey begins in mid-February. During the trip north, the whales hug the coastline tightly, creating a spectacle that requires no binoculars or boat rides. The channel boasts a variety of whale species, but the grays are recognizable by their pale skin and heart- shaped spouts, according to Captain Mathew Kurto of the Condor Express.


Fortunate whale watchers have witnessed spy- hopping, in which a whale appears to stand on its tail while seeming to looking around with its head out of the water, or breaching, when a whale lunges out of


20 CARPINTERIAMAGAZINE


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