R/V Sea Explorer Capt. Mike Bursk: ‘Gray whales rival Flipper in crowd appeal’
By Erika I. Ritchie; Orange County Register


DANA POINT  — Marine biologist Mike Bursk spent 111 consecutive days living on the shores of the San Ignacio Lagoons in western Baja, Mexico, as a young researcher learning about gray whales.

Now, decades later as captain for the Ocean Institute’s R/V Sea Explorer, Bursk, 60, uses his expertise and research to teach Orange County students about whales and the ocean environment.

On Thursday, Jan. 25, he will be the featured speaker for the American Cetacean Society — Orange County. He will focus on what makes gray whales so beloved by the public and why they are significant to Orange County coastal communities.

It is a common belief that gray whales use the projecting Dana Point Headlands as a navigational landmark, he said.

Bursk, of San Clemente, first fell in love with the friendly “coastal” whales in 1978 during a semester off from San Diego State University. He went to work with now noted gray whale researcher Steven Swartz to develop an environmental study for the Mexican government on the gray whales in the lagoons of Baja.

Mike Bursk, a Marine Biologist at the Ocean Institute, and Captain of the R/V Sea Explorer, stands on the bow of the boat in Dana Point Harbor on Tuesday, January 23, 2018. Bursk will give a talk about whales at an upcoming American Cetacean Society Meeting. (Photo By Jeff Antenore, Contributing Photographer)

“Seeing them in a group social setting changed the way I perceived all whales,” Bursk said. “We found they have a very defined social structure and are very well organized. When you go to their house and watch them, you realize they follow rules and care about each other. No one expected to find that then.”

Bursk also assisted Bruce Mate, a marine mammal researcher at Oregon State University, in the first-ever placement of a radio tag on a gray whale in the wild.

“The tag had a battery life of roughly 90 days and weighed about 30 pounds,” Bursk said. “By 1985, we used a tag with a 10-day life span, and it weighed about six ounces. Today, tags are tiny and can transmit for months, sending far more data than we could’ve imagined in 1978.”

Each year, thousands of gray whales travel from arctic waters near Alaska, where they feed, to the warm lagoons of Baja, to mate and give birth. During their approximately 12,000-mile round-trip journey, gray whales face threats including orcas and entanglement in fishing gear.

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