Time of the giants
By ANDREA GRANAHAN / West County Correspondent
Along the Sonoma County coast, magnificent California Gray Whales begin their annual 6,000-mile migration after the holidays. Biologists call it the longest journey by any mammal.
They begin in the waters off Alaska and Russia and travel back and forth to their breeding grounds in Baja California, passing the North Coast on their way.
When they do, there’s one woman who can help everyone spot the telltale spouts from Bodega Head: the Whale Woman, Bea Brunn, who admits only to being “over 60.”
Born in Norway, she came to San Francisco to work for a Norwegian steamship company in 1953 and never left the area. Educated as a marine biologist, she is an avid SCUBA and skin diver. “They had to fish me out of the ocean every night,” she said, grinning.
This stepmother of four and grandmother of nine soon became fascinated by marine mammals. She studied with a specialist and more than 25 years ago started the official Whale Watch for Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.
The public education program begins at Bodega Head the first weekend after New Year’s as whales make their way south, and continues through most of May as they return north. Because mothers and babies swim closer to shore on their return trip, the viewing is better between March and May.
Brunn knows a lot about their habits, but said, “There is just so much we only guess at. I wish I could talk whale and get more information.”
What we do know is fascinating. They are up to 52 feet long, weigh up to 40 tons and live between 50 and 70 years. Whalers nicknamed them the Devilfish because the mothers fought fiercely to protect their young.
Nonetheless, they were hunted almost to extinction. In 1970 it was hard to spot a whale because their numbers were so low they were put on the Endangered Species list.
While Japanese and Russian crews still hunt some of them (Russian indigenous people feed whale meat to their fur animals and Japanese executives consider it a status food), the whales have responded well to the protections and are now back up to historical levels of 26,000 plus, according to National Marine Fisheries documents.
One reason for their rapid recovery is the relatively narrow migration corridor. They can easily find each other and give birth in protected Baja lagoons, whereas other whales give birth in the open sea where waters are rougher and predators abound.
“Whales gestate for 13 months,” Brunn said. “So the mothers leave north first and don’t eat during their journey. They are in a big hurry to get to the lagoons before the babies come. The babies are just 1,500 pounds and 12 to 15 feet long. They need to gain weight fast.”
Mothers are the last to leave the south, giving the little ones time to fatten for the arduous journey. When finally headed north, they protect the babies from whale-loving sharks and orcas.
At any one time about half the females are pregnant and the other half are available for mating. Migration is courtship and mating time.
The whales form mating trios and rub barnacle to barnacle, increasing their hormone levels until the female is ready. One male holds the female up so the other male can successfully mate without drowning her. The males never fight.
While all this is happening, the whales keep moving south and, as they do, they breach, leaping clear of the water. No one knows for sure why. The best guess is that they jump for joy. Migration is party time.
When babies try to breach, Brunn said, “it is so funny to watch. They are not strong enough, so it looks like they are bowing. I think they are trying to see people better. People clap for them and laugh.”
Climate change is affecting the whales she added. As the ice retreats, they must travel farther north to find the krill the feed on, which makes their journey longer.
“Juveniles have actually started hanging out at the Head year round. They are opportunistic feeders.”
Brunn also is concerned that physical contamination of the waters and noise pollution will affect the whales. The Navy and oil exploration create sonic blasts that affect the whales’ hearing.
“They depend on their hearing like we depend on sight,” said Brunn.
She has traveled to the breeding lagoons to see the young whales. “The mothers push the babies right up to the boats for us to touch.”
Brunn said Mexico is doing an excellent job of protecting the whales because of the tourist business they bring to Baja. “But whaling still happens. Japan, Iceland, Russia and Norway all do whaling. It’s just greed.”
In addition to showing whale watchers what to look for at Bodega Head, she works as a docent at the Bodega Marine Lab, leading school groups and educating them about the special giants off our coast.
“I know the children will make the real difference if they learn to care about the Earth,” she said.
How to spot a whale: Grays have a distinctive heart-shaped spout. Scan the horizon and watch for it. They breathe three to fives times, then arch and dive for up to five minutes, 15 minutes if they are being harassed.
Once they dive, you will see their tails. Wait five more minutes and look farther south for them to surface again.
If you are lucky you will see them “spy hop.” They may be getting their bearings or wanting to look at you. No one knows for sure, but they bob with head out of the water, tails down.
Later in the season, the mothers and babies are closer to shore and move more slowly north. That gives watchers a chance to see the magnificent animals up close.