Waters Well-Traveled: A Look in Migrations Passing by UCSB

Illustration by Diane Kim

Hailey Hill

Science & Tech Editor

Some of the most incredible phenomena in the natural world are the mass migrations that countless land and oceanic species embark upon every year. Migratory species “know” by instinct to travel thousands of miles each year in order to chase optimal weather or oceanic conditions, or to follow their food sources. Migration patterns are almost always correlated with seasonal changes and occur yearly barring any unprecedented circumstances such as a natural disaster.

Many of these oceanic travelers pass through the waters just off of UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Isla Vista (I.V.), especially different species of whales and sharks as they pursue food and warmer water. One of our most locally well-known visitors are leopard sharks, which are not aggressive towards humans and gather in large numbers to shore starting in the summer months, sticking around from June until sometime in December. If you head to Devereux Beach, just slightly west of campus and I.V., there is a decent chance you’ll be able to see these small sharks among the waves just offshore. These are the same sharks you probably petted in a touch tank in an aquarium as a child! However, while leopard sharks are very comfortable around humans and are considered harmless, it is still important to keep a respectful distance from any and all wild animals, as human interaction can be harmful to their natural behaviors and patterns. 

Some of the greatest migrations on the entire planet are that of whales, and many species of whales pass by our coastline as they make their epic journeys. Gray whales are a yearly visitor to these waters as they make their spring migration (March through May) from their nursing grounds near Baja California to the far north in order to feed off of zooplankton and schools of small fish along the Alaskan coast. These gentle giants can be up to 50 feet long and may not always be visible from shore, but their journeys are nonetheless remarkable. 

The beloved humpback whale may also be seen passing through during certain times of the year. Humpbacks travel constantly and extensively, with some trips totaling over 5,000 miles as local populations travel between Baja, California, and the Aleutian Islands in order to follow the krill they feed on and breed. Humpback whales can reach up to 60 feet in length and love to make their presence known by breaching, which is when a whale will jump out of the water and land on its back. Breaching is actually a form of communication for humpbacks, as is spouting water from their blowholes. It’s possible and fairly common to see these whales in action from land, and it’s a truly joyful sight to see. 

Though migration patterns are usually as old as the species themselves, they do change over time to adapt to changes in climate, food availability, or human encroachment on their breeding or feeding grounds. Such is the case with white sharks; in recent years, the number of white sharks in the waters off of our southern coasts has increased significantly, largely due to a rise in water temperatures closer to shore. White sharks converge on our coastline during summer and fall months when the water is warmest; while white sharks are not aggressive creatures, they are hunters by instinct and are best avoided by humans. This is true for most large shark species. A view of a dorsal fin from shore is more than enough to appreciate these visitors. 

Oceanic migrations are fascinating because these animals often travel more than most humans do in their entire lifetimes. Learning more about them reminds us of the complexity of lives outside of our own and hopefully allows us to gain a greater appreciation for them!