A juvenile gray whale that led stand-up paddle boarders, kayakers and the Orange County Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol on a goose chase through Dana Point Harbor most of Tuesday, Aug. 8, was finally shooed back out to sea by mid-afternoon, where it was later spotted off Laguna Beach heading north.
“We had our fire boat spraying the surface of the water to create loud splashes and the paddle boarders were hitting the water with their paddles,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol Sgt. John Hollenbeck, about efforts to get the whale back on course. “He led us on a bunch of laps around the harbor.”
Efforts to re-route the whale began around 6:45 a.m. when the wayward mammal was spotted along the docks in Dana Point Harbor’s inner channel by a stand-up paddle boarder who pointed the whale out to Dominic Biagini, an aerial photographer for Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari.
While having a whale in the harbor isn’t that unusual, Tuesday’s sighting was different.
The whale spent at least seven hours inside the U-shaped harbor and made multiple laps – swimming under docks, circling piers and hovering in less than six feet off water near the boat launch.
Also, gray whales generally aren’t seen in Southern California this time of year. Most have completed their annual 12,000-mile West Coast migration from the lagoons of Baja by now and are busy feeding in the shallow waters of the Bering Sea.
The whale’s appearance, Tuesday, became a spectacle of sorts, drawing attention from hundreds at a crowded Baby Beach, along with dozens of paddle boarders and kayakers out for their morning workouts.
“It was right in the kid’s swim area, and it looked like it was going to get stuck,” said Nathan Good, a 12-year-old from San Clemente who was on out on a whale watching trip with fellow junior guards aboard Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari boat the Manute’a. “The captain sailed over and we got to see it. It was awesome. It was a baby and it was cute.”
Biagini started filming the whale by drone at Baby Beach, watching as it worked its way up the north side past the Pilgrim tall ship. From there, the whale circled a small fishing pier several times.
Biagini watched as a woman jumped off her kayak into the water next to the whale. “The whale spy hopped to look at her,” Biagini said. “I’ve filmed a lot of animals, but this is amazing.”
About 10 a.m., Capt. Dave Anderson, on board the Manute’a, followed the whale from their dock to Baby Beach and watched as it fed in the mud in water no more than 12 feet deep near the Ocean Institute. At 11 a.m., the whale was still near the Ocean Institute blowing bubbles and meandering in shallow water.
Donna Kalez, of Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching, first saw the whale at Embarcadero Marina, as it moved from one side of the boat ramp to the other. She watched as it swam up the channel past her own boat docks and then out past the bait ramp.
“It’s trying to feed,” Kalez said mid-afternoon.
“The whale is really skinny,” Anderson said. “I’m a little concerned that it hasn’t been eating that well.”
He was also concerned about the lice and barnacles on the whale’s head.
Anderson said the whale was likely the same one spotted Monday in Carlsbad. He said some gray whales never go on the full migration from Baja, Mexico to Alaska. Some become resident whales along the coast. However, those communities of whales generally are farther north, off Oregon and Washington.
“The main thing is, he will need enough food to sustain himself if he stays in the area,” Anderson said. “They normally feed off the bottom. Once they get up to Oregon, there is more concentrated prey.”
Justin Greenman, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine mammal disentanglement and stranding team, agreed that the whale was skinnier than it should be. He said the large amount of whale lice on the animal’s head could indicate that it is struggling.
“These animals should be feeding up north,” Greenman said. “He may have been in Mexico with the others and got left behind. The fact that he appears to be heading north is a good thing.”
Greenman said NOAA has alerted harbors from Newport Beach to Los Angeles about the whale and cautioned kayakers and paddle boarders to stay clear.
“Because this guy may not be feeling well and is confused, you never know what will spook him,” Greenman said. “We give them time and space to leave. The Harbor (Patrol) knows how to handle these things. They know what they’re doing.”