Tag Archives: Migration

The Whale Detective

Here at CIMI our backyard is full of all kinds of marine animals. The biggest of these animals includes the many species of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), which pass through the channel between Catalina Island and California quite frequently. As large as these animals are, chances are that you will be viewing them from a distance whether it’s on land or on a boat. Most of the time the only thing you will get to see from these magnificent creatures are there whale spouts, flukes (tail fins), or their backs whenever they surface and dive.

Whale Watch

When whales spout, you will see a geyser of water shoot up into the air that can be seen from miles away. This water that is shooting out however is not seawater but it is the condensation of the warm insulated air that is being shot out of the whales lungs mixing with the comparatively cold air from outside. Every species of whale has a distinctive kind of shape of their blowholes and also has different sized lungs therefore each type of spout shape and size. Each species of whales also will have different shaped flukes and ridges of their backs. The whales that frequently go through our channel include some larger baleen whales such as the grey whale, blue whale, fin whale, and humpback. Baleen Whales have two blowholes whereas toothed whales like dolphins and porpoises only have one single blowhole.

The grey whale can have two very widely dispersed spouts in a “v” formation and can be between 9 and 16 feet in the air. They lack a dorsal fin but have several knuckle like ridges on its back that show as it surfaces or dives down. Their flukes are convex and usually ragged with a distinctive deep notch in the middle making the shape of a “whale” groomed mustache. They may pass through the Catalina Channel coming from the arctic on their way to forage for food in Southern California and Mexico.

Whale Blowholes

Blue whales have been in the channel migrating to tropical waters in order to give birth to breed and give birth to their young. Their flukes are much less robust than the grey whales fluke with much more straight trailing edge and a shallow notch in the middle. Their spouts can be up to almost 40ft high and look like a slender column of spray that looks like the green stalk of a carrot. Blue whales have a small triangular and variably curved fin dorsal fin sitting towards its caudal region and have a smooth back.

Whale Fluke

Fin whale are very similar in appearance to the blues where they have a slightly more robust and curved dorsal fin and fluke and can be seen year round near the sea of Cortez.

Humpbacks have a rugged looking fluke with robust curves and many ridges through out the fluke as well as a deep v shaped notch in the middle of the fluke. They have a low stubby dorsal fine with a broad based followed by slight ridges going down its back towards the fluke. Their spouts can be up to 9 feet high and can be heart shaped. They can typically be found in higher latitudes during the summer to feed in colder water and in the winter will head to warm watered breeding grounds.

The most common toothed whales that come through Catalina Island include the Rissos, common, and bottlenose dolphin and on a rare occasion even an Orca or killer whale. Orcas can be found on the Pacific coast especially in Washington but will sometimes follow food all the way down to Southern California. They have a very distinctive black and white pattern on their tails and have a very widely dispersed spout.

Whale Migration

So just based on their fins, spouts, and flukes you can be an expert in recognizing these magnificent animals. Next time youʼre out on the ocean be sure to bring a pair of binoculars to see if you recognize any whales from a distance!





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Whales Dolphins And Porpoises by Mark Carwardine 1995, 2002

Happy Holidays

It’s the holiday season! In many places around the world that means it’s time to bundle up or travel somewhere close to the equator—somewhere warm. Many animals have that same mindset. The transition into the winter season can cue biological processes in animals, like migration and hibernation.

Organisms migrate for a variety of reasons like food availability, breeding, and a favorable climate. The arctic tern hold the record for longest migration, a whopping 12,000 miles one way. The second longest migration belongs to a whale. The gray whale. Once winter begins to roll around, pregnant females lead a migration down to the warm waters of Baja. The whales will remain there until the newborn calves are ready to make the long journey back north to the waters off Alaska, where they feed over summer. 

Other animals will hibernate—remain dormant—over the cold winter months when food is scarce and conditions are harsher. Characteristics of hibernation include a lower body temperature, a slow heart rate and breathing rate. A species of frog, the wood frog, takes hibernation to an extreme. It freezes. Completely. It’s heart stops beating, it stops breathing, ice crystals form in and around its body. Once they defrost, everything gets up and running again, until next winter. Bears are another example of hibernators, though their hibernation is much less extreme. Even (female) polar bears, who are adapted to some of the coldest weather will hibernate when pregnant and after birth until conditions are good enough for her and her cubs to emerge from their den.

What do you choose to do this winter? Are you a bundle-er or a traveler?

Happy holidays!

To learn more:



The Journey of Migration

Every year, many species travel thousands of miles on a journey called migration. Migration is the process by which a species travels from one habitat to another. Animals may migrate thousands of miles due seasonal changes and or to mate, feed and raise their young.

Let’s look at a few migratory species and learn a bit more about them!


Individuals from this species start off their lives as hatchlings on tropical beaches. If they can make the treacherous journey to the ocean, they will spend the next few years avoiding predators and growing larger. Only just above 5% of hatchlings will make it to their first birthday. Scientists have collected very little information on sea turtles’ lifestyle over their first juvenile years (deemed the lost years) however, they likely hide in algal floats and feed on small prey.

Eventually, these turtles can grow up to six feet long and weight over a thousand pounds. Once females are mature, they will return to the tropics to lay their eggs. They don’t lay their eggs just anywhere though- they actually return to the beach that they themselves hatched on! Males spend their entire lives in the ocean, but females will migrate back and forth from feeding to nesting grounds. This journey can exceed 10,000 miles stretching from tropical beaches in places such as Indonesia up to coastal regions including the pacific coast of North America.

We still don’t know exactly how these animals navigate, but they may use the sun or the Earth’s magnetic field. This species has had quite a bit of time to evolve such amazing navigational prowess. Close relatives of the leatherback have existed for over 100 million years!

migration whale

The gray whale migrates farther than any other mammal known to date. In total, this whale travels up to 12,000 miles every year. These whales give birth in tropical waters largely off of Baja California, Mexico. The warm waters provide shelter for their calves keeping them safe from orcas and allowing them to put on blubber. The babies grow quickly eating an average of fifty gallons of milk every day. Over this time, the mother eats little to nothing and looses much of her body mass.

After 2-3 months, the whales begin migrating northward in groups called pods. Their destination is the artic waters of the Bering and Chukchi seas. Once they reach these waters, the whales feast. Gray whales are baleen feeders, which means that they have big toothbrush-like baleen plates instead of teeth. They use these plates to scoop up sediment from the bottom of the ocean and filter out plankton, namely krill. These whales can grow up to 50 feet long and weight 50 tons so they need to eat a lot of food!

migration butterfly

Here on Catalina, we are within the route of the monarch butterfly’s migration. These amazing butterflies migrate up to 3,000 miles every year. Although the migration contains an entirely new generation of butterflies each year, they still nest on exactly the same trees as their predecessors. At Cherry Cove, we found a few monarch chrysalises precariously placed on hoses. We carefully moved these to a homemade habitat and watched as they turned into butterflies. What amazing creatures!

Many animals migrate each through their own remarkable processes. However, climate change is challenging these ancient journeys. Global warming has already begun disrupting migration patterns and will only continue to do so unless species can adapt to the changing climate.

For more:

Migration corridors: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110622/full/news.2011.379.html

Species changing migration routes and migrating to new areas due climate change: https://www.neefusa.org/weather-and-climate/marine-species-move

For teachers: lesson on migration:

  1. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/activity/why-animals-migrate/
  2. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/activity/marine-migration/










Written by: Talia Niederman

Massive Migration of Gray Whales

Gray Whales have the longest known migration of any mammal traveling a total of about 10,000 to 14,000 miles! This migration typically starts in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beuafort Seas and ends around the coast of Baja California. This massive migration is quite the feat and it typically takes two to three month just to travel one way! This means that gray whales spend almost half a year solely dedicated to their migration. So why do these massive marine mammals migrate so far? Proper food and breeding grounds are extremely important for the survival of Gray Whales. Therefore these two factors are driving forces behind such a large migration.

GrayWhaleMigration1Gray Whales typically spend their summers in the cold, nutrient rich waters of the north, in particular the Bering, Chuckchi, and Beuafort Seas, where they can find ample amounts of food. They have around 130 to 180 plates of baleen on each side of their upper jaw and utilize this baleen in order to catch their food. Gray Whales have developed the nickname “mudsuckers” over the years due to the fact that they love to eat invertebrates found on the muddy and sandy ocean floor. They will typically feed on just one side of their mouth making the either right sided or left sided feeders; kind of like how us humans are either righties or lefties. While feeding they utilize their baleen to filter out water and sediment while keeping the delicious benthic invertebrates trapped in their mouth.

Gray Whales start migrating south during the beginning of September and October and will start arriving in Baja by mid February and March.

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GrayWhaleMigration6Once in Baja they will begin to mate and calve a new generation of whales. The warm waters of Baja provide a safe environment for the mothers to nurse their calves. In the first few months of their life gray whale calves will be nursed milk that is about 53% fat; this milk is so fatty that is has a consistency similar to cottage cheese! During the two to three months spent in the warm water of Baja young gray whales grow stronger and build up an ample amount of blubber for the colder waters of the north.

The migration back to northern waters typically begins in late March and mid April. During this northern migration mothers will travel close to shore to keep their young safe from potential predators and dangerous water.

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Written By: Alex Feltes


Gray Whale. National Audubon Society: Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. 2002.

Monarch Butterfly: Flighty Friends

Monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) are like the grandparents of the butterfly community, traveling south to warmer weather during winter months, and heading north again when it starts to warm up in the summer. Monarch butterflies are easy to identify, with bright orange and black coloration on their wings. Though the underside of the butterflies’ wings are less brightly colored to allow more camouflage while the animal is at rest, the fluorescent orange serves as warning coloration. The color screams to predators, “I’m poisonous, don’t eat me!”. Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed plants, which produce a toxin in their bodies that remains in their system after metamorphosis into a butterfly.

Though most of these recognizable butterflies live east of the Rocky Mountains, there is a population that resides to the west. Probably more familiar to most, the eastern populations of monarchs spend the summer in the northern states of America, as well as Canada. When it starts to cool, around August for the northernmost butterflies, they migrate an incredible distance to Mexico.

The monarch butterflies that live west of the Rocky Mountains do not travel quite so far. Most travel to the coast of southern California, including the Channel Islands and Catalina Island, while some make it to Baja or Mexico. Some monarchs stay in southern California year round, while others migrate back north to northern California or British Colombia, Canada.

Regardless of their origin or destination, the migratory abilities of monarch butterflies are impressive. Monarchs can travel between 50 and 100 miles a day, with the longest recorded distance at 265 miles in one day! Some monarchs fly as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter site. For most monarchs, the trip is only one-way. They have never migrated before, and won’t again. So, how can they know how to get south, or north for their one lifetime trip? This phenomenon is still being researched, but several hypotheses exist to explain their directional abilities. One hypothesis suggests that monarchs compare the position of the sun in the sky to their biological clock. That is, they know where the sun should be based on what time their biological clock tells them it is, and then they use the angle of the sun to navigate to their destination. Another recently proposed hypotheses contemplated what butterflies do when it’s cloudy if they use the sun for navigation. As it turns out, monarchs have a backup navigational system in the form of an internal magnetic compass. This means that on cloudy days when they can’t use the sun for directional information, they can utilize the Earth’s magnetic field to stay on course. However, their primary navigational tool is thought to be the sun. Google Maps has nothing on monarch navigation!


We would like to thank you for visiting our blog. Catalina Island Marine Institute is a hands-on marine science program with an emphasis on ocean exploration. Our classes and activities are designed to inspire students toward future success in their academic and personal pursuits. This blog is intended to provide you with up-to-date news and information about our camp programs, as well as current science and ocean happenings. This blog has been created by our staff who have at least a Bachelors Degree usually in marine science or related subjects. We encourage you to also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Twitter, and Vine to see even more of our interesting science and ocean information. Feel free to leave comments, questions, or share our blog with others. Please visit www.cimi.org for additional information. Happy Reading!