It’s spring on the west coast and the year’s first big celebration is on. It’s Pacific Rim Whale Fest time. I wrote about the festival and grey whales in Long Beach Wild. Here’s the excerpt, from page 34.

“Each spring around mid-March, Long Beach-area residents celebrate the return of grey whales with the annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival. The opening day parade is a big draw for children–there seem to be more kids in the parade than watching it.

Launching the two-week-long party with a parade is appropriate, as the whales appear in a sort of parade, too. Their migration begins early in the year, when the first animals swim out of their breeding and calving grounds in the shallow, salty lagoons of Mexico’s Baja peninsula. From there, the mammals follow their internal compasses, turning right and heading north, staying close to the coast. Thousands of the whales (some estimates say 24,000) eventually reach the Bering and Chukchi Seas. There, they feast for the summer on shrimp-invertebrates, fishes, worms, and other small organisms they can strain from the water, often gorging more than 450 kilograms (990 pounds) a day. Around mid-Octoboer, the whales, with their bodies’ fat stores renewed after months of fearing, begin their return trip south.

Grey whales, smaller than their humpback relations, are the most common species in the Long Beach area today. They weren’t always, though. Humpbacks were once just as plentiful and are thought to be the species preferred by Nuu-chah-nulth whalers. Their numbers are slowly increasing from their near annihilation during the commercial whaling era, and nowadays whale watchers are often treated to their acrobatics off the coast.

Grey whales use their short baleen (flexible, fringed “plates” rooted in the palate) to strain food from the water. These whales are unique, however, because they are the only baleen whale known to feed on the ocean floor. To do this, a grey whale rolls onto its side, lays its head on the sea bottom, and, like a vacuum cleaner, sucks up huge amounts of water and sediment. Then, aided by the action of its 1,100-kilogram (2,425-pound) tongue, it sieves the water, mud and sand out through the baleen, which leaves behind amphipods, tube worms, and other small organisms.

Their propensity for shallow coastal waters makes greys one of the most watched whale species today. It was once thought that all the whales just passed by Long Beach during their migration. (The first ecotour operations on the west coast didn’t advertise whales in their brochures because they thought sightings would be unreliable.) This idea began to change in the mid-1970s, when Jim Darling, a surfer, sea lion tour guide, and later naturalist for the national park, noticed that in the height of summer, and sometimes even in winter, he often shared the waters off Long Beach with grey whales. This shattered the myth that all the whales completed the entire migration from Mexico to the Arctic. Clearly, some were hanging around Long Beach. Darling was so interested in the matter that he went on to study grey and humpback whales in the northeastern Pacific. Two of the whales he photographed in those early years, Two Dot Star and Saddle, were still alive and visiting the waters near Long Beach as of 2010.”