Malibu Surfside News

Malibu Surfside News - MALIBU'S COMMUNITY FORUM INTERNET EDITION - Malibu local news and Malibu Feature Stories

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Perspectives Change on the Other Side of Malibu’s Shoreline

• Ocean Excursions Lead to Surface Adventures with Marine Life on Its Terms


Every year, thousands of gray whales travel from the arctic waters of the Bering Sea to Baja California and back-a journey of almost 12,000 miles. Malibu residents are blessed with a front row seat, as the giant mammals travel down and up the coast from late December until April.
Hunted to the edge of extinction, the gray whale was given partial protection in 1937 and full protection in 1947 by the International Whaling Commission. The eastern north Pacific gray whale population has made a strong recovery and now numbers between 19,000 and 23,000, according to the American Cetacean Society.
Although adult gray whales can measure nearly 50 feet and weigh 30-40 tons, they can be remarkably difficult to spot. However, females with young calves prefer to stay close to the coast to protect their young from great white sharks and the near shore off of Point Dume is a good place to catch a glimpse of one of the earth’s largest living animals.
Whale watchers occasionally spy fin whales, minke whales, and several species of dolphin. Whale watchers in Ventura County are reporting pods of orca in the channel this week.
Later in the year, blue whales-the largest animals on earth-and humpback whales are also sometimes seen. Sea lions, harbor seals, and several species of dolphin are year-round residents.
The annual grey whale migration coincides with peak winter bird migration. Whale watchers often see species like the western grebe—a large sea bird whose sinuous S-shaped neck and bright orange eye make it easy to recognize, or the surf scooter, a medium-sized sea duck with a distinctive orange beak. The scooter, like the grey whale, is a long-distance traveler, heading from the arctic to the southern hemisphere.
The staff of the Malibu Surfside News recently took a trip on the Malibu Surfrider, a 50-foot, open-deck fiberglass boat that launches from the Malibu Pier. A dozen passengers took the nearly three-hour cruise up the coast to Zuma and back to the pier.
No whales were sighted on the trip, but passengers where treated to the amazing sight of hundreds of dolphins leaping and dancing in the water.
Captain Rick Hays provided marine mammal information and some local history, handing around a model gray whale and explaining what to look for, including the “footprint” created as the massive marine mammal submerges and the distinctive, heart-shaped spout, generated when the whale surfaces to breathe.
The first marine mammals sighted on the cruise were the Point Dume sea lions. Point residents often hear this colony vocalizing, their barks and growls providing a counterpoint to the solemn clang of the buoy bell that they regard as their own personal island.
According to Hays, only the alpha sea lions can claim a place on the buoy, although there is considerable jostling for position. The younger, smaller sea lions have to content themselves with basking nearby, flippers in the air.
Nearby, cormorants perch on the pinnacles-the only visible portion of the tall spires of volcanic rock that extend deep into an undersea canyon and are a favorite destination of divers and a serious hazard for inexperienced sailors. A wrecked sailboat on the beach is a visible reminder of the hazards of local waters.
The area has a tradition of smuggling and whaling. Hays reminded his passengers that the Paradise Cove Pier was the anchorage for one of the West Coast's last whaling ships. During the winters of 1934-36 the steam schooner California anchored off Paradise Cove killed an estimated 272 gray whales before protections for the rapidly declining species were enacted in 1936.
Hays said that there has been an unusually large number of squid off the coast of Malibu this winter-so much that squid fishers met the 118,000 ton quota set by the Department of Fish and Game several weeks before the end of squid season-and that the presence of the marine cephalopod means plenty of bird, dolphin and sea lion activity.
Squid weren’t in evidence this weekend. The local wildlife population was feasting instead on thousands of anchovies.
Hays spied bird activity through his binoculars and turned the boat round to investigate. A mile off of Latigo Canyon, the air was suddenly filled with the white and gray feathers of hundreds of gulls, while the sea, sparkling with anchovy scales, appeared to boil with dolphins and sea lions. The dolphins, interested in the boat, swam along side the bows, leaping and diving too swiftly to be easily caught by the camera.
The return journey offered calmer water than the outward trip and spectacular views of the Malibu coast as the sun slipped out from behind clouds in the late afternoon.
Although the Malibu Pier accommodates disabled visitors, the boat launch to access the whale watching boat requires visitors to negotiate a steep flight of stairs that cannot accommodate wheelchairs and isn’t advisable for anyone with mobility issues. However, lsland Packers, the National Park Service concessionaires that operate out of Ventura Harbor, confirm that they can safely accommodate disabled passengers.
Whale watchers, who suffer from sea sickness and would prefer to miss the boat, can often get a good look at passing whales without having to leave dry land. Point Dume State Beach is reportedly one of the best places in Southern California to spot passing whales.
The lookout at the northern point of the headlands offers a comfortable location to sit and watch for whales. Experts often gather there, and most are happy to offer expertise to novices.
Whales often come so close to the Point that watchers sometimes hear the sound of their breathing before they see them. The Malibu Pier offers whale watching boat cruises twice daily on weekends and holidays, through April.
Tickets are $45 for adults, $35 for juniors and seniors. Reservations are recommended. Visitors should check the day of their trip to make sure that the launch has not been cancelled. More information is available at
Island Packers, at,offers daily three-hour whale watch trips from Oxnard or Ventura. Only the Ventura landing is wheelchair accessible. Adult tickets are $33, seniors are $30, children $24.

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