Worrying About the Whales: Scientists Keep Count as Grey Whales Migrate Past San Diego

Thousands of gray whales have begun their annual migration down the West Coast, and after a record number of them died during the journey last year scientists are keeping close count.

A whale's tail is vertical right above the surface of the ocean
Cici Sayer, Offshore Blue Adventures

A keen eye can see them.

A keen eye on a boat can see them even better.

Thousands of whales are currently swimming by off the coast of San Diego during their annual migration from Alaska to Mexico. Scientists and whale watchers hope this migration is better than 2019’s.

It's heartbreaking.

Cici Sayer, Offshore Blue Adventures

“We love these animals. It’s just part of our life,” said Captain Cici Sayer, owner of Offshore Blue Adventures headquartered in Mission Bay.

Sayer and Captain Christine Healy took NBC 7 on their boat to get a closer look at some of the gray whales on Thursday.

Two people stand on a boat in the middle of the ocean
Joe Little, NBC 7
Captains Christine Healy and Cici Sayer look for gray whales near Point Loma on Thursday.

“We’re going to carefully go up to it, traveling slowly so as to not stress out the whale,” said Sayer.

2019 was a reason for scientists to stress out. More than 200 gray whales died between Alaska and Mexico, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That’s roughly four-times more than any of the previous 18 years. NOAA called it an Unusual Mortality Event.

Sayer and Healy recently attended a lecture lead by scientists studying the gray whales. A lot of theories behind the event point towards climate change, Sayer said.

“With the ice cap having melted further and further back, their food source became less and less,” she said.

Gray whales feed in the polar ice caps and migrate to warmer waters near Mexico to breed. Some of the whales are starving along the way, Sayer said.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said.

NOAA said it knows three gray whales have died already this year, two of which were abnormally thin. A spokesman told NBC 7 that’s a very small sample size and scientists will know more once they’ve finished their annual count of the whales.

“We’re just hoping that this is not going to be another extension of that mortality event,” said Sayer, as two large whales surfaced off the coast of Point Loma.

The NOAA spokesman said there are roughly 27,000 gray whales. Their migration route is believed to be one of the longest on the planet.

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