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Watchers surprised by sighting of 23 whales

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The whale-watching boat was about to go back to the coast of Ranchos Palos Verdes when the captain suddenly began heading the vessel farther out to sea.

As the boat inched closer and closer to a pod of whales, passengers on board gathered to look on in amazement.

This was not your ordinary whale-watching trip.

Typically, gray whales travel by themselves. Sometimes, they will travel in groups of three. But on Sunday afternoon, researchers counted 23 -- give or take a whale -- in a single pod.

The group was the largest that volunteers with the American Cetacean Society/Los Angeles Chapter Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project have seen in 30 years, said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, the director and coordinator of the group.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have that many whales there,” she said.

Schulman-Janiger said the largest pod she had seen before was 11 to 16 whales on Christmas Day 1985. She thought she was lucky then.

When Schulman-Janiger heard about the group of whales Sunday, she dropped everything to get on a boat and get out to sea.

The setting sun created an ideal backdrop to the sighting, she said. The mist shooting up in the air as the whales inhaled and exhaled was tinted a bright-pink from the sunset, almost like “cotton candy-colored popcorn,” Schulman-Janiger said.

Gray whales begin their southbound migration from Alaska in the late fall, she said. Observers start seeing the whales generally around November, but volunteers for the Gray Whale Census begin watching and tracking the cetaceans from sunrise to sunset from Dec. 1 to mid-May each year.

This year, 460 southbound gray whales have been counted, compared with 455 last year.

Last year and this year’s numbers are some of the largest southbound counts that the group has seen in about 15 years, Schulman-Janiger said.

In the next week, the southbound migration will likely peak, making it an ideal time for people to go on whale-watching trips, Schulman-Janiger said. She added that the cetacean society is always looking for volunteers.

Cinzia Quevedo, who was on a paid tour with her husband and 7-year-old daughter Sunday, said watching the whales was like seeing “dancing water.”

The experience inspired her daughter, Chloe, to learn more about the ocean. “She realized how incredible this beauty is,” Quevedo, of Manhattan Beach, said. “It was special, it was very special."

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-- Nicole Santa Cruz

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Photos: A  gray whale, top,  swims near the Port of Long Beach. Two whales side by side, above. On Sunday afternoon, researchers counted about 23 gray whales in one pod. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

 
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