It's unclear how many of the estimated 21,000 Pacific gray whales have already passed Southern California, during what appears to be a slightly early migration to Baja California's lagoons.
But because more whales than usual are remaining close to the coast, coupled with several weeks of high visibility and calm waters, sightings are being logged in record numbers and the season could be among the best in the history of commercial whale watching.
It was a record December for the ACS-LA Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project, whose volunteers have been counting whales from the Point Vicente area on the Palos Verdes Peninsula every day during the migration period from December through mid-May since 1984.
The census begins on December 1. By the end of the month volunteers had counted 368 gray whales (four northbound). That shattered the previous record of 194 December gray whale sightings (three northbound), set in 2011.
The migration began to peak locally during the past week. On the last three days of 2013, volunteers tallied 33, 32, and 37 gray whales, respectively.
So far in 2014, the whale train has showed no signs of slowing. Volunteers on Wednesday rang in the new year by counting 34 gray whales, despite the first significant influx of fog in weeks.
"There have even been several groups of six, seven, and eight whales passing through, with many of them showing their flukes. We're used to see one, two or maybe three," said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, director of the census and behavior project. "And many have been very close to shore. It has just been whale after whale."
Commercial landings that have sent out whale-watching boats throughout December–some don't start until the day after Christmas–also reported a record number of sightings.
Capt. Dave's Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari in Dana Point, for example, issued a news release Wednesday, stating that it had logged a December-record 75 gray whale encounters.
"During just one trip a whopping ten grays whales were recorded!" Capt. Dave Anderson reported.
In December of 2012, Capt. Dave's recorded only 44 sightings.
Dana Wharf Whale Watch recorded 81 gray whale sightings in December, versus 17 for the same month in 2012.
The local migration period typically peaks the second or third week of January. But the ACS-LA project–the world's only full-season gray whale census station–has posted its highest December counts during the past three seasons (182 whales in 2012, 194 whales in 2011).
Wayne Perryman, a marine mammal specialist with NOAA, said it's not clear whether the whales are beginning their annual migration from Arctic feeding waters earlier than in the past.
"Clearly there is some variability in the timing of the southbound migration," he said. "We have some years in which the first pulse is early and in some years it is a little later.
"Also, from Point Vicente, the observers are only seeing the inshore part of the migratory corridor and in some years more are inshore than in other years."
Schulman-Janiger said that for some unknown reason, more whales seem to be taking the coastal route this season, rather than the more direct offshore route. One factor could be the long period of calm, near-windless weather.
A similar weather pattern occurred in 1984 and lasted into the spring. That was when volunteers, who began the census on January 1, counted 898 southbound whales and an astonishing 3,412 northbound whales. That number remains a record for the northbound migration.
The record southbound count occurred 1986-87, when the gray whale tally was 1,291. The northbound count was 3,373, the second-highest in project history.
Over the past 30 years, the number of southbound has ranged between 301 and 1,291. For northbound whales, the range is between 521 and 3,412.
This season the southbound count will be somewhere in the upper end of that range.
Thanks to a recurring positioning of high-pressure systems to the east, favorable viewing weather is on tap for at least the next week, and plenty of whales are being spotted in areas such as Monterey and Santa Barbara.
Although the local migration might not have peaked yet, it's definitely peaking, and will begin to taper off before the end of month.
In other words, now is prime time to go whale-watching.
–Top two photos showing gray whales off the Point Vicente Interpretive Center on the Palos Verdes Peninsula are courtesy of ©Alisa Schulman-Janiger. Third photo showing a gray whale fluking off Dana Point is via @Pete Thomas
–Note: Volunteers are needed to help man the census station at Point Vicente Interpretive Center. Those who are interested are asked to contact Alisa Schulman-Janiger firstname.lastname@example.org