Laguna Beach described as ‘Whale Beach’ after series of unusual close encounters

 Gray whale calf spy-hops near two swimmers
Gray whale calf spy-hops near two swimmers

A two-mile stretch of Southern California coastline has been renamed “Whale Beach” by the operator of a whale-watching business who’s reporting an unusually high number of gray whale moms and calves stopping to rest and play in the area’s tranquil coves.

Donna Kalez, general manager of Dana Wharf Whale Watching, says that during the past few weeks her captains have logged more than 40 sightings of gray whale cow-calf pairs in the shallow coves of Laguna Beach.

That’s well above average, Kalez says, but what’s really unusual are the number of close encounters with swimmers.

 Gray whale mother and calf a mere stone's throw from shore
Gray whale mother and calf a mere stone’s throw from shore

With unseasonably warm weather, more people are visiting the beach, and when whales emerge just a few yards from the sand, many can’t resist swimming out for a more personal experience—which is a rare opportunity and sounds like fun, but it’s not in the best interest of public safety.

“This only happens for one month, from April into May,” Kalez said. “But usually at this time of year it’s too cold for people to go swimming with them, and there are not many people at the beach.”

Kalez on Friday emailed local media outlets, announcing that gray whale cow-calf pairs “are making the beaches of Laguna Beach a playground.”

She included the image atop this post, which also is posted on the company Facebook page under a caption that reads, “We are calling this Whale Beach.”

 Most are content to watch the gray whales from the beach, but some can't resist a more personal encounter
Most are content to watch the gray whales from the beach, but some can’t resist a more personal encounter

The photo was taken from aboard the 95-foot “Dana Pride.” Captain Tom White reported to Kalez, “The whales are actually loving the people in the water. It’s amazing; they are going over to them.”

But this was just one of many instances. Swimmers also have pursued the whales while wearing snorkeling gear and GoPro cameras, and Kalez’s captains have reported some cases in which swimmers have spooked the mothers.

Also, in some cases, swimmers have been kept out of the water by lifeguards.

 Swimmers who approach gray whales might be violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act
Swimmers who approach gray whales might be violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act

Spooking whales, or altering their behavior in any way, is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, punishable by fines and/or jail time.

Plus, said NOAA marine-mammal specialist Monica DeAngelis, it’s dangerous for swimmers to approach powerful, unpredictable cetaceans that can measure to 50 feet and weigh 40 tons.

“From my perspective we wouldn’t want to encourage people getting in the water, especially with a mom and calf,” DeAngelis said. “Gray whales were nicknamed ‘devil fish’ mainly because of the reactions mothers had when whalers came in and went after the babies.

 Gray whale mother tries to keep calf from getting too close to the beach
Gray whale mother tries to keep calf from getting too close to the beach

“Snorkelers aren’t whalers, but I’m using it as an example that they are wild and unpredictable, especially with a baby in tow. Best to admire at a distance. If they do approach, stay calm and do not pursue.”

About 24,000 Pacific gray whales are migrating from Baja California nursing grounds to Arctic home waters. Most have already passed Southern California. Bringing up the rear, as usual, are the mothers and calves.

Captain Frank Brennan of Dana Wharf said that the cow-calf pairs that are entering the coves appear to be in a playful mood among themselves, “but they don’t want to be bothered.”

Brennan said that the whale pairs turn right toward the coast after passing the Dana Point headland and settle mostly into coves with rocky cliffs.

But most of the encounters involving swimmers have occurred at Aliso Beach, which is sandy and popular with swimmers.

This is where the photo opportunities are best, for those aboard boats and on the beach—and, in some cases, in the ocean.

Lasting memories, for sure, but the whales have a long journey ahead of them, and as they get farther up the California coast they must deal with predatory killer whales, which like to feed on gray whale babies.

Perhaps this is why cow-calf pairs are hugging the coast and resting in coves, and perhaps this is the best reason of all for swimmers to leave them alone.

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