Giant Sperm Whale Nursery Pod Swims Past SoCal

“It was an extraordinary encounter, a once-in-lifetime experience,” is how whale researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger described seeing dozens upon dozens of sperms whales off Southern California coastline this week.  Schulman-Janiger has seen sperm whales – best known as the Moby Dick whales – in SoCal waters before but typically that sighting has been of a few males foraging for squid, their preferred food.

But what Schulman-Janiger and a handful of other lucky folks aboard local whale watching boats witnessed is one for the record books: a nursery pod of mothers and calves, numbering between 50 to 100 individuals. The whales were spread out over five miles and traveling in smaller groups.

FLIPPING OUT - Whale watchers were treated to seeing a nursery pod of sperm whales. PHOTO: NEWPORT COASTAL ADVENTURE
FLIPPING OUT – SoCal whale watchers were treated to seeing an extraordinarily large nursery pod of sperm whales. PHOTO: NEWPORT COASTAL ADVENTURE

Schulman-Janiger said there is a lot of squid off the coast these days, but these sperm whales didn’t seem to be deep diving for the bigger squid. “They were on a good steady pace heading south,” she said.

The megapod was first spotted off the Palos Verdes Peninsula by Harbor Breeze Cruises whale watchers.

“It really was an astonishing site,” said Clive Stacey, naturalist with The Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific who was on board during one of the two excursions that witnessed the whales. “There were blows everywhere and as far as you looked, all you saw were whales.”

Stacey explained that the calves were not nursing but swimming alongside the adults. “Sperm whales stay with their mothers for about the first six years,” he said adding that it was hard to estimate just how many juveniles were in the pod. “There weren’t any particular small teeny tiny ones from what I could see.”

BLOWS AND MORE -- Sperm whales traveling in small groupings through SoCal coastlines. PHOTO: NEWPORT COASTAL ADVENTURE
BLOWS AND MORE — Sperm whales traveling in small groupings through SoCal coastlines. PHOTO: NEWPORT COASTAL ADVENTURE

“Today in our own backyard!” wrote Captain Mike Redlew of Harbor Breeze on his Facebook page; he was on one of the two excursions that encountered the whales. “It’s amazing to think whales ships went out for three years at a time chasing these animals, to wastefully kill them for oil by the tens of thousands.”

On their southward trek, the toothed whales were sighted by Newport Coastal Adventure; Captain Ryan Lawler captured the remarkable pod via drone footage.

NOAA’s current estimation of the number of sperm whales off California, Oregon and Washington is about 750, which makes this sighting even more noteworthy.

Will the whales make a repeat appearance next year, heading north? Hard to say. Sperm whales are mysterious beasts and little is known about their migration habits. Keep those binoculars – and drones – handy, SoCal.

Besides, if you don’t happen to catch the sperms, you may see other tantalizing sea life that’s splashing in our waves now. Also impressive this past week was sightings of transient and offshore killer whales, mammals that aren’t typical SoCal visitors.

As far as frequent guests go, however, it’s now officially gray whale migration season and the big cetacean are swimming south to the warm lagoon waters of Baja’s calving nurseries. Still being seen these days are the equally impressive blue and humpback whales along with various dolphin species that always delight whale-watchers of all persuasions.

— Brenda Rees, editor