A highway cop, a musician and an animal trainer – it sounds like the setup for a corny punch line, not the basis of one of Southern California's longest-running gray whale research projects. Add in an IT technician, a night nurse and more than 70 others, and you've got the force driving the gray whale census at Palos Verdes' Point Vicente Interpretive Center, a marine biology research project staffed by volunteers for 31 years.
From a cliff-top terrace, volunteers working in shifts scan the sea from sunrise to sunset, for the duration of the whales' December-to-May migration, keeping tabs on whales' direction, condition, company and behavior. Run by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society, it's the only project of its kind that covers the entire migration season – and what keeps it afloat are citizen scientists, ordinary people trained to make and record scientific observations.
“Many of our people are members of the public who were jogging by one day, another day brought binoculars, another day brought a chair, and then they end up as part of that project,” says Alisa Schulman-Janiger, the marine biologist who founded and oversees the project.
Sheila Parker (L) shows a volunteer the day's whale census log sheet. This year's gray whale count at Point Vicente is the highest in 16 years.
Volunteer Sheila Parker is a case in point, a retired Los Angeles highway patrol officer who stumbled upon the project on a walk with her daughters. “My daughters were bored, so the next day I came out by myself,” she recalls. That was three years ago. Now she staffs the project every week, watching through binoculars for whales and other marine life, and keeping detailed records of position, weather conditions and behavior that the group logs and shares with other researchers studying the whales.
Gray whales have one of the longest migrations of any mammal, traveling more than 10,000 miles round-trip every year, between Arctic feeding waters and the warm-water Pacific lagoons in Baja California where whale calves are born every spring.
Despite promising new programs to track whales with satellite imagery, researchers looking to study any whales in the ocean generally face daunting logistics and high costs for boats and fuel. But during the migration, some of the estimated 21,000 grays in the Pacific swim close to California's coast, where researchers can study them from land. It's an incomplete sample, but one that still allows researchers to observe a whale's condition, environment close to shore and behavior.
Government-run gray whale studies don't have the money, or the scientists, to count whales from shore all season, says Schulman-Janiger. “But it's different for us, because we have unpaid people,” she says.
The volunteers are “the only ones filling in those holes that are left by the lack of budget to be able to cover the official scientific studies.”
They come to the project with widely varying skill sets.
Census volunteers on the terrace at Point Vicente Interpretive Center in Palos Verdes. "It's nice to have other crazies who enjoy watching the water," says volunteer Casey Chase.
Volunteer April Ryan had gotten up-close and personal with mammals before, as a Hollywood animal trainer. “I did squirrel commercials,” she laughs. “I was a camel girl in 'Charlie Wilson's War.' ”
Santa Monica composer Eric Hemion developed his “sitting and staring out to sea” skills as a lifeguard in New Jersey. “So this is right up my alley,” he says.
Some go through whale-watching classes at the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium; all are trained on-site to keep accurate records. But the main thing the volunteer researchers all have in common is a passion for watching whales -- and the ability to keep at it, rain or shine, for hours and hours every week, 5½ months a year.
“My husband thought I was crazy,” says volunteer Casey Chase, a night-shift nurse who found out about the whale census while planning her wedding at Point Vicente. “It's nice to have other crazies who enjoy watching the water.”
Retiree and senior volunteer Joyce Daniels concurs. “Out here in the wind and the rain? You know you've got to be crazy.” But, she says, it's rewarding -- so much so that she's been at it for 20 years. “It's one of those things -- once you start doing it, you get really into it,” she adds.
The first gray whale census here started in the late 1970s, as a project at the now-defunct Marineland ocean theme park. As a serious research project, it had its limitations.
“Some of our volunteers at Marineland were there, honestly, just to get into Marineland,” recalls Schulman-Janiger. “They would sit with us for a little bit, then go off and watch the killer whale show.”
In 1984, Schulman-Janiger expanded the project to cover the whole migration season, despite having no budget for scientists, or even supplies. “It's the little engine that could,” she says. Her team’s main resource is persistence, and she says it’s paid off.
“We see nursing behavior. We see mating behavior,” she says. “We've been able to see 20 different species here – nobody knew you could see that many close to shore. So we're able to find things that nobody had really seen before.”
A whale fluke off the Southern California Coast.
Over the years, that's put these volunteer naturalists in a position to have an impact on marine science and on conservation. In 1990, Schulman-Janiger recalls, they were consulted during the development of regulations on the placement of gill nets.
“Based upon the feedback we gave them, they decided to ban them within 3 miles of shore,” Schulman-Janiger recalls. “So although we are volunteers, we are contributing to the science and we are influencing things such as regulations.”
That's part of why volunteers come back, year after year. But there are more personal draws, too.
“I love to see the whales breach (propel themselves out of the water) – that's like a 10 to the power of 10,” says volunteer Tony Carrillo.
Schulman-Janiger's favorite moment is when baby calves swim atop their mothers, “stick their little faces up and roll around.”
For Sheila Parker, it’s the memory of a moonlit predawn watch, when she first heard the sound of a whale breathing. “When they exhale it's a hollow, majestic, almost haunting sound. ... And it's just really special.”
And then, of course, there are the other mammals of the sea that volunteers get to observe: sea lions, dolphins, killer whales -- and occasionally, humans. Ryan, Parker and other women volunteers burst out laughing as they recall a stand-up paddleboarder in his birthday suit, caught by their super-powered scopes.
“We're just hooting and hollering,” laughs Ryan, “ 'Cause people don't look up, right? They're down there, and they have no idea we're up here.”
But they are, and if history is any guide, they will be for many gray whale migration seasons to come. Skinny-dipping paddleboarders, you have been warned.