Gray Whales, Punxsutawney Phil and Phenology


By Jim Covel, Senior Manager of Guest Experience Training & Interpretation

Not many animals get their own national holiday.  Perhaps that’s why Groundhog Day is one of my favorite holidays.  If you missed the headline, Punxsutawney Phil didn’t see his shadow when he poked his head out of his burrow, so we can expect an early spring.  With all due respect to Phil, there may be better ways to predict weather trends.

That’s where phenology comes in.  The science of phenology doesn’t get much attention, yet it’s one of the oldest sciences practiced by humankind and one of the most important to our survival.  Phenology is the observation and documentation of the cycles in the natural world around us.  For thousands of years we humans have tracked when plants bloom or bear fruit, when creatures migrate, when to plant, when to harvest, or when to prepare for particular weather changes or events.

Monterey Bay Rhythms

Monterey Bay has its own cycles, many of which are evident right now.  The annual migration of gray whales is at its peak along the central California coast.  Northern elephant seals are gathered on beaches for their annual season of birthing and mating.  Our winter bird visitors are with us—surf scoters, loons, grebes and mergansers.  Yesterday the Brandt’s geese arrived off our deck, right on time.  Soon we’ll be looking for harbor seal pups and nesting pelagic cormorants.

In earlier eras humans depended heavily on phenology. Our food supply relied upon knowing when the salmon or steelhead would run; when flocks of birds would arrive during migration time; or when wild berries, bulbs and fruits would be ready to harvest.  Agriculture helped stabilize our food supply, but it was still just as critical to know when to plant, irrigate or harvest.  The Farmer’s Almanac is one of the best tributes to phenology.  Since 1818 we have consulted this volume to forecast seasonal events and recommend planting times for all types of crops.

An Old Science with Modern Implications

While phenology may not get as much attention as some other sciences, it may be more critical now than ever before.  The forces that help regulate Nature’s calendar—heat, cold, rainfall, atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns—are shifting as we energize our atmosphere.  We observe this as changing migration patterns, plants blooming earlier, animals shifting their home ranges, changes in the nesting times for some bird species.  The science of phenology has provided important baseline data as well as ongoing documentation of changes from all over the planet.  This has been some of the best evidence we have about the extent of climate change impacts across the globe.

Phenology is a great example of “citizen science” where all of us can participate in science and research efforts.  In fact, the more of us that participate the better.  It’s easy to make regular observations of natural events around us and record that information.  As we provide more data, scientists have more material to work with in documenting changes in the world around us.  If you’d like to join the growing number of citizen scientists practicing phenology, you might want to visit the website for the USA National Phenology Network.

Perhaps we can get Punxsutawney Phil to join the phenology network and start logging his annual shadow observation.


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    …and also a big fan of phenology. The birds around here are singing spring songs before there’s any weather sign of...
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About me

The Monterey Bay Aquarium, perched on the edge of a world-famous coastline, is your window to the wonders of the ocean. It’s located on historic Cannery Row in Monterey and is open daily except Christmas Day.

For more information about our animals and exhibits, and to view our live web cams, please visit

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(831) 648-4800.