Whale 'Traffic Jam' In Southern California Clogs Port; Scientists Can't Figure Out Mass Gathering

By Ben wolford on December 31, 2013 1:38 PM EST

Whale Traffic Jam
Sperm whales were among the species spotted off the coast of Los Angeles. Photo: Shutterstock

They're calling it a whale traffic jam. It's the time of year when gray whales migrate down the coast of Southern California to weather the winter in warmer waters. Sometimes they also see killer whales (AKA orcas) in the mix. But lately, scientists have been seeing gray whales, orcas, a sperm whale, humpback whales, blue whales, and fin whales in huge numbers. And nobody can figure out why.

"The thing you would expect to see are gray whales migrating through," Dave Bader, director of education at the Aquarium of the Pacific, told NPR. "And the fact that we're getting a chance to see at this time of year fin whales, blue whales, is really a mystery." Meanwhile, there have also been more gray whales, according to "census takers," who annually gather to count the migrating throngs. By Dec. 28, they had already seen 181 gray whales — twice the usual number.

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They've all come to feast and hang out near the bustling Port of Long Beach. Scientists like Bader have been speculating about what could've drawn so many different whales in such high numbers, NPR reports. It could be related to climate change. Under that theory, extra squid and krill are coming to Southern California because the warming seas are changing the convecting currents. Another theory says the water is becoming less polluted.

"We knew they came through here, and we knew that they were there, but to see them in this abundance, we really don't know why," Bader says. "It could very well be that we've done a great job and the waters are better here off the coast — somehow that's attracting them. Maybe the populations themselves are growing. But the honest answer is, we don't know."

According to the Whittier Daily News, there are about 21,000 gray whales living in the North Pacific. Alisa Schulman-Janiger, who leads the gray whale census, told the newspaper that the higher number of sightings could be attributed less to seismic changes than pollution and climate change. She said it's "either an earlier or closer-to-shore migration, a population boom or simply clearer skies for watchers to spot the marine mammals," the paper wrote.

"It's something really special to be able to see them in our own backyard, in the wild," Schulman-Janiger said. "They're coming up to boats on their own volition. They're choosing to come up to us, which is super special. It's not like they're in a tiny pool being forced to perform."

Photo above courtesy of Shutterstock.

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