Whale Watching With Mike & Winston
How We Log (Record) Sightings

Contributed by Mike Hawe

Volunteering at the gray whale census is not just kicking back at the beach in a chair! We have to keep careful notes for every sighting.

But before we even take notes, at least one other observer needs to verify the sighting. In Whale Watcher's Lingo, I taught you how we track whales and call out a sighting using binoculars with a built in compass and reticles. Shouting out the sighting with the reference position enables anyone else to look in the same place and verify the sighting. (Even the best of us whale watchers can make a mistake.)

If I said, "BLOW to the left of me about 2/3 the distance to the horizon," you probably wouldn't see the whale without a reference.

If you had binoculars like mine and I said "Blow at 288 degrees at 30 mil," you should be able to spot the same whale.

How to Log Sightings

In the upper part of the large column to the left, volunteers sign in with their name, start time, and the time they finished observing for the day. The lower part of this column is for remarks about each sighting.

Every sighting is recorded on the census behavior chart. It's easier to follow along if you divide a big piece of paper into 12 columns, and label the columns as you read these descriptions:

Column 1: the sighting number of the day (first sighting = 1, second sighting = 2, and so on) and what whale parts or behaviors we saw on that sighting. Examples:

BL: blow
BR: Breach
BK: back
FLK: Fluke
PR: print (or "footprint"): a round, slick patch on the surface of the water made by an unseen whale's fluke as it swims just below the surface of the water
Snk: snorkeling: a whale barely breaks the water's surfacer, exposing just its blowholes (but no visible sign of a blow)
Stealth: When we suddenly lose a whale we have been tracking ("Gone Stealth")
AB: audible blow
Milling: The whale or whales seem to be staying for a while in one area, or milling around.

Column 2: the number of whales in the sighting

Column 3: if we saw a cow/calf pair (mother and baby)

Column 4: the direction in which the whale was swimming (N= north, S= south)

Column 5: time of day and the distance from the census site bearing. (i.e. 07.27a.m.; 2 miles)

Column 6: the compass reading of the sighting (i.e. 214 degrees, 10 mil)

Column 7: the next sighting's time and distance from census site

Column 8: the compass reading at or around the transect line. (The transect line is an imaginary line running straight out in front of the census location. Once a whale has crossed the census line, we can determine if the whale is northbound or southbound.)

Column 9: the next sighting's time and distance from the census site.

Column 10
: compass reading of the last official sighting of that whale. (We still keep monitoring the whale, usually until it is out of sight.)

Column 11: initials of the obsever who first sighted that whale. Although other census volunteers have been tracking the whale too, normally the first person to sight the whale is the one who will track it until its last official sighting.

Column 12: total number of whales sighted so far on that day.

On the other side of the chart we record the weather conditions every half hour.

Try This! Activities

  • Photo Quiz: What Whale Behaviors Do You See? Which photo shows Snk? Which photo shows BL? Which photo shows Pr? Our photo quiz helps you identify behaviors just like the whale watchers do. >>
  • Print out the weather condition chart and see how you would answer this question: On this particular day, how did the weather conditions change between 0800 (8:00 a.m.) and 1700 (5:00 p.m.)? Write a paragraph to summarize the weather changes