Making Their Wave Back Home

Whales have been sighted near shore along Malibu’s beaches several times in recent weeks, as Baleen whales make their migration north.

Malibu this week has been awash in whale sightings. From Point Dume to Westward and Zuma beaches, you may find crowds of onlookers dumbstruck on the sand looking seaward at cetaceans, big to small. They are Baleen whales—filter-feeding whales such as the gray, blue, humpback and the smallest of the whales—the minke. 

The whales are on their slow migratory journey back to the Arctic water where they spend the summer months. According to a local expert, Dr. Reese Halter, the marine mammals have a strategy. 

“Near the Arctic they are feeding for 20 to 22 hours a day to bulk up,” the Ph.D. in ecostress physiology explained. “They store most of their krill [micro lobsters] in their blubber.” 

In autumn months, the sea giants swim back down to the Gulf of California where they calve. While calving in the warmer waters 6,000 miles away from where they feed, they mostly do not eat. However, newborns feed on their mother’s rich milk for their first journey north. 

“They use the blubber they’ve accumulated during the gorging of the summer months. The whales we see, and we’re seeing a lot—this year in particular in the Santa Monica Bay—are on their way north to have something to eat” according to Halter. They’re known to take their time from Baja, Mexico. It takes a couple of months.

Halter, who has been studying the earth and its life-supporting systems for nearly four decades, confirmed what Malibu Times staff witnessed this week—a young calf playing close to the surf at Westward Beach in no more than five-foot-high water while its elder family members watched from farther out in the ocean.

“They’re playing just like people, believe it or not. Whales love to play. It’s very important,” Halter described. “We know that when animals play, it’s a sign of excellent, high intelligence. The young ones have to learn. You’re talking in excess of a 40-ton creature and obviously they can’t get near to the shore as the youngsters. The youngsters don’t really understand stranding and if they’re not too careful, could get too close to the beach. So the mothers and the aunties are watching.”

Spectators were watching, too, and some tried jumping in the waves to get a closer look. Others used drones—Halter adamantly advised against doing so.  

“No. 1—the first word that comes to mind is ‘respect.’ These are the monarchs of the sea. Getting in the face of a monarch is not a good idea,” Halter cautioned. 

He advised that, although Baleen whales are not aggressive, the sheer bulk of huge mammal that can weigh upwards of 150 tons could cause serious injury, or worse. A large whale tongue could be “as big as an SUV,” according to the scientist, who added, “No parent would like some other creature to get too close to their child, especially a calf, because you run the gambit of infuriating the parent and when that happens anything goes. This is just common sense.” 

As for drones, Halter cautioned, “People who don’t know what they’re doing can be a problem because if they get too close to the water and don’t know how to operate their machine or lose radio contact, the drone can go into the water. 

“I’ve seen it, and if it hits a whale, it hurts the whale,” Halter described. “It comes back to this notion of respect.”

According to Halter, “Each year on planet Earth, fisheries disdainfully discard 646,000 metric tons of petroleum-based plastic nets. They just throw them away.” Those become what’s known as “ghost nets.” They entrap and suffocate ocean life. 

“We lose over 306,000 cetaceans—whales, dolphins and porpoises—to those wretched ghost nets yearly,” Halter said. “It happens along our coast and every other coast. Most of the whales, dolphins and porpoises wind up suffocating and dropping to the bottom of the ocean. It is unacceptable—this indiscriminate murdering of nature is wrong.” 

Without whales that provide iron and nitrogen in their excrement, Halter said our entire marine ecosystem will be out of whack. 

“Oxygen levels have been diminishing since the 1980s, according to my colleagues at The Scripps Institute,” Halter said. “We must protect the whales.”