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A whale of a success story: Gray whale comeback boosts business

A rare look at a spectacular show of nature, as gray whales make a splash off the coast of Southern California. They've made an impressive comeback and are giving the economy of that region a real boost. NBC's Diana Alvear reports.

By Diana Alvear, Correspondent, NBC News

A couple of breaths are enough to reveal the giants beneath the surface.

Two Pacific gray whales are spotted just off the coast of Redondo Beach, Calif., two of thousands that are making their way south to warmer waters near Mexico. That’s where many will mate and give birth before returning to Arctic waters. Their journey takes them along the California coast to the delight of tourists, locals and naturalists, such as Alisa Schulman-Janiger.

Click here to visit the website for the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society

"60 years ago this wouldn’t be happening,” she said. “These are whales that were hunted to the point of extinction."

Channel Islands Whale Watching/Photography by Edward Howell

Prized for their bones and oil, Pacific gray whales were hunted relentlessly and were nearly wiped out twice -- once in the mid 1800’s and again in the early 20th century. Alarmed by their exceedingly low numbers and the extinction of the Atlantic gray whale, commercial whaling was banned first by Mexico, then the U.S. in the 1940’s. Since then, gray whales have become the comeback kids of the Pacific.

“They are the only whales to be taken off the endangered species list," Schulman-Janiger said  "So that’s a real success story.”

And their success has translated into success for state and national parks situated along the so-called “whale highway.” Cabrillo National Monument even holds a Whale Watching Weekend, an event designed to educate families about the need for conservation.

Click here to visit the U.S. National Park Service website 

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LaShae Bibbins and her husband brought their two daughters to the event.

“I really do think it’s important because they can grow up understanding conservation and then maybe being an advocate,” she said.

Her daughter, 6-year-old Kaitlyne, can’t take her eyes off the coastline. She wants to see a whale, “cause they’re really interesting and fascinating!”

Brennen Nicoletti slowly toured the exhibits with her 2-year-old son perched on her shoulders.

“I grew up getting to go whale watching. I want my children to grow up seeing the whales and not reading about them in a book,” she said.  “Actually see them in real life and up close and personal like I’ve been so lucky to be able to do.”

American Cetacean Society naturalist Alisa Schulman-Janiger speaks about the importance and preservation of gray whales, stressing that education plays a key role.

And then, a shout came up from the boardwalk bordering the coast. Someone had spotted a spout. Visitors quickly pulled out their cameras, standing on tip toe for a better shot.

It’s a scene one wouldn’t normally see at this time at Cabrillo, according to Cabrillo spokesperson Emily Floyd.

“With our vantage point, it really brings people in. And we definitely do see a rise in visitation in what would normally be an off-season for us,” said Lloyd.

With sweeping vistas of the sea, tourists flock to Cabrillo and other coastal parks to see these gentle giants at a time when, on average, attendance is down and state and national parks are struggling.

Just south of Cabrillo, San Diego Whale Watch tours is preparing to push off for another tour. The boat is packed, everyone jostling for a good view.

The company used to sponsor fishing expeditions but two years ago, owner Christopher Switzer had an idea: “We were driving the boat in from fishing trips and were having to dodge whales,” he said.

So the company switched to whale watching and business is booming.

“There’s a whole economy that revolves around live whales,” Schulman-Janiger said. “People buy T-shirts and jackets and all sorts of things, it brings people out of their homes and out on boats to see the whales.”

She says the whales aren’t just survivors, they’re proof that successful conservation can lead to economic success. And she’s hoping these rock stars of the sea serve as an example to ensure these and other natural wonders never cease. 

Channel Islands Whale Watching/Photography by Edward Howell