Looking out for spouts: Whale-watching season in full swing along Sonoma Coast
As a longtime docent with the Whale Watch Public Education Program at Bodega Head, Norma Jellison fields the same question over and over again: “Have you seen any whales today?”
Rather than tire of the line, she considers it an invitation to share information about the majestic Pacific gray whales migrating within view of visitors atop the granite cliffs overlooking the ocean.
“It's a real opening to interpret,” said Jellison, a Bodega Bay resident with a deep love of the ocean and its diverse inhabitants.
She has been a volunteer with Whale Watch for 20 years, one of about 45 docents who explain the northern gray whale migration and natural history with visitors from around the world.
A program of the Guerneville-based nonprofit Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, it was established in 1986 by Santa Rosa resident Bea Brunn, kindly regarded as “Whale Mother.” Now retired from the program, Brunn has a legacy of docents filling her mission to inform the public about gray whales.
During the migration season from January to May, docents are at Bodega Head every weekend afternoon, weather permitting. They direct people to look for the bushy, heart-shaped blow among the waves.
Last Sunday, on a clear but frigid day with winds reaching 30 to 35 miles per hour, at least one whale was spotted heading back north to the Arctic waters of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
Jellison and a few other docents - all in green vests emblazoned with bright yellow “Whale Watch” lettering - braved the cold and wind, enhancing the coastal experience for the crowds gathered on the first sunny day after a series of storms.
“Some come to the Head and have no idea there are whales. Other people come specifically to see whales,” Jellison said. “Whale or no whale, it's a magical environment.”
George and Regina Cuculich of Santa Rosa drove to the coast to spend some time outdoors after weeks of rain. Jellison chatted with them about gray whales, and also shared something of grand proportions about another whale species.
“Blue whales,” she said, “are bigger than any animal that ever lived on the planet, even bigger than dinosaurs.”
The couple, who've spotted gray whales at the overlook, enjoy the enrichment provided by Whale Watch volunteers. “The docent ends up telling us everything we need to know,” George Cuculich said.
Regina Cuculich said they search the waters with “eagle eyes” hoping to see a spout or a breaching whale.
“I'm always amazed how large they are,” her husband said. “They are just giants.”
Jellison cautions visitors there are no absolutes, no high-odds times or conditions for spotting a whale. “There are no guarantees, but you might be lucky,” she said, noting some 20,000 whales make the round-trip journey.
While it's easier to find whales when the ocean is calm and flat, that doesn't assure a whale will emerge within view. “You may go a whole season and not see a whale,” Jellison said.
Cheers and applause often erupt when visitors see whales, with some people moved to tears, she said.
“They get so excited when they see one. People are really drawn to them, I think because (whales) are so incredibly massive,” she said. “To see a whale jumping out of the water, a whole whale thrusting itself out of the water blows people away.”
Jellison can't estimate how many whales she's seen - hundreds, she wonders, maybe more - but said it's always a joyful experience.
“When you are looking at the ocean and see the blow of a whale, it's so exciting. It's icing on the cake to see a breach,” she said. “Any day you can see a whale, it's a good day.”
Some docents, like Anne Bandy of Santa Rosa, are still waiting to catch their first glimpse of a gray whale.
Bandy, in her first season as a docent, has not yet seen a whale. That didn't deter the retired systems analyst from taking the Whale Watch training.
“I love the sea,” she said. “It gets me out here in nature.”
Many docents are retirees who enjoy meeting people and sharing their love of the ocean and their knowledge of gray whales. Others, like Jellison, have full-time jobs but also find time to volunteer.
Jellison is the real estate manager for the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District. She's past retirement age but still enjoys her job and manages to juggle enough free time for Whale Watch.
A former El Cerrito mayor, she has volunteered with Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods since 1994, first with Seal Watch at Goat Rock, which she did for a dozen years before switching to Whale Watch. She volunteers close to 200 hours a year, serving as a docent and overseeing administrative duties and conducting trainings and orientations.
Jellison typically spends every other weekend at Bodega Head during the migration season, always looking forward to engaging the public. Children provide a special delight for volunteers, she said.
“The kids are so enthusiastic, so excited,” Jellison said. “A lot of them know a lot about whales from learning about them in their classroom.”
She enjoys discussing whales with young visitors “and at the same time blowing parents away” with Pacific gray whale facts: adults average 70,000 to 90,000 pounds, for instance; live 60 to 70 years; have no teeth; eat a diet of small shrimp-like crustaceans called amphipods; and mostly live off their blubber during their round-trip migration of some 12,000 miles. They breed in the warmer waters of Southern California and travel to the Pacific Coast lagoons off Baja California, where whales calve and nurse before their northbound journey. Their gestation period lasts 13 months.
In April and May, mothers and calves can be spotted returning to Alaskan feeding waters, with the calves inland as mothers protect them from predators.
“They're really fascinating. They're ancient,” she said. “For eons and eons they've been doing this trip along the coast.”
Jellison and other docents manage an informational table with posters, fact sheets and interpretive materials, including whale bones, baleen, barnacles, krill and even whale lice. A tiny replica of the gigantic creatures provides an idea of their structure and features.
Friends Chris Bauman of Sebastopol and Linda Goolsby Ford of Santa Rosa recently went to Bodega Head to watch for whales. They've seen them before, but are drawn back by their magnificence.
The whales are a reminder of all the life stirring in the waters below, an “amazing” representative of the beauty in the sea, Bauman said.
Jellison marvels at the history of whales. She's hopeful people leave the area with “an appreciation for the ocean and the vital role it plays for so many animals.”