Pacific Conditions a Boon for Whale Watchers

     MONTEREY, Calif. (CN) — Most years it’s a crap shoot. You’re bobbing on the ocean with a pair of binoculars scanning the horizon in hopes of spotting that one spout that means you’ve seen a whale. The ocean has a monotony that can be disorienting, and you are well aware that you might be spending hours of your life, straining your eyes, braving the cold wind and a brutal bout of seasickness in vain.
     On a Sunday in early August, about a dozen whale watchers gathered on an old commercial fishing boat repurposed as a whale-watching vessel, hoping the occasional futility of searching for whales off the coast of California will not be their lot.
     The captain for the day was Nancy Black, a marine biologist and co-owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, whose gruff, no-nonsense manner and knowledge of the sea and its manifold creatures could easily qualify her for a salty character in the old Melville-style seafaring tales of yesteryear.
     Black acknowledged that the fog hanging thickly around our vessel is not ideal, but she was not daunted. The Monterey Bay manufactures fog, particularly in the summer, when the sun mixes with the cold water of the Pacific Ocean to create a thick marine layer that sometimes burns off by noon but sometimes never burns off at all.
     On this morning, the fog is tinted with orange and yellow and laced with a faint but discernible campfire smell, as the Soberanes Fire burned uncontrollably just inland and a tad south of Monterey. The fire is on the minds of all residents of the region. In fact, Black spent the day texting friends, alternating between offering her property as a refuge for their pets to worrying she might have to have them fetch her horse if the wind changes.
     Despite the specter of the fire in the background and the fog clouding the foreground, the weather was calm. The wind was down, the swell which ordinarily delights Central Coast surfers but makes demands on the stomachs of land-lubbers, was virtually nonexistent.
     All of that increased the anticipation for all aboard — even the veterans.
     “You will see a whale today,” Black tells the crowd on board the vessel as we set out from the wharf.
     The reason for Black’s confidence is the presence of what some scientists estimate is more than 200 whales in the Monterey Bay, more than double the usual amount and the most Black has seen in years.
     The factors are myriad.
     “In June there was an inordinate amount of wind and it created quite a swell,” Black said, adding it made for some tough trips for her seasick customers. “But it also pushed up nutrients from the bottom of the ocean, which aided a boom in the krill population.”
     As anyone remotely familiar with whales knows, where there is krill there are whales, as it the large mammals’ principle source of food. The abundance of krill has also been assisted by an ocean phenomenon known as upwelling, caused by the cooling of ocean waters.
     This is part of the story. Another part is the humpback whale population has rebounded worldwide and in the Northern Pacific.
     The International Whaling Commission says humpbacks have increased by 9 percent since 1984, with an estimated 22,000 cruising the Northern Pacific migrating with the seasons from the waters off Alaska to either the tip of Baja or over in Hawaii.
     The humpback’s bounce-back is a conservation success story as strict new regulations that significantly curtail the hunting of humpbacks and other whales have helped stem the depletion of their population.
     As the boat left the harbor and entered open water, a group of whale watchers sitting at the bow spot two whales as they raise their flukes, indicating they are diving down through ocean layers in search of food.
     Typically, Black might wait for the whales to resurface in the area, but there is such a surfeit of whales to be seen farther out that she barely even slows.
     Black is headed for the edge of the Monterey Canyon, a large underwater canyon roughly the size of the Grand Canyon that begins at Moss Landing and heads straight west into the Pacific Ocean, bisecting the Monterey Bay.
     “There is deep water that is close to shore here, which is unique,” Black said. “It’s not like that anywhere else on the coast.”
     The proximity of the canyon to the shore is one reason the Monterey Bay is such a premiere spot to see marine animals.
     “The canyon is very productive, because the walls concentrate the food for the whales,” Black said.
     Sure enough, as we approached a spot directly above a canyon wall, the ocean was suddenly replete with whales, most of which were lunge feeding, meaning the krill was at the surface and the humpbacks would lunge out of the water with their mouths open.
     At one point during the morning, as the fog peeled back from the ocean surface, we stood on the deck and saw about 15 whales popping from the depths. Most of them were of the humpback variety, with their characteristic bumps from which the dorsal find extends. But other more rare species of whale also made appearances.
     At one point, a blue whale surfaced about 60 feet from the boat, slowly making its way at a diagonal angle toward the starboard side. About 30 feet away, it surfaced again emitting a vigorous spout about 20 feet in the air, as all on board crowded the railing to see.
          Once more the blue whale surfaced, this time about 10 feet off the starboard side. In contrast to the humpback, the blue whale’s color is lighter, a subtle blue-grey, with spots on its back that biologists use to distinguish one specimen from another. Also, compared to other whales it has a tiny dorsal fin, which is particularly infinitesimal relative to the animal’s girth.
     Those gathered saw the enormity of the creature as it appeared like a shadow moving effortlessly under the water, its size and power blatant as it glided past the boat, gathering krill as it went.
     The blue whale is the largest mammal on earth — actually the largest animal on earth. Not only that, the blue whale is the largest animal ever known to have existed.
     It can be up to 100 feet long and weigh nearly 200 tons. By contrast the largest dinosaur, the Argentinosaurus, is estimated to have weighed 90 tons, not even half the size.
     Blue whales are not as playful as the humpbacks, which are curious about boats, people and are known to breach — casting themselves out of the water while rolling to their side to make a big splash when they are feeling playful.
     Blue whales cannot afford such inefficiency. Instead, they spend the bulk of their time feeding on krill, upon which they feed almost exclusively.
     There is another contrast between the species, albeit an unfortunate one. Unlike the humpback, which are steadily climbing back to historic population numbers, the blue whale remains squarely on the endangered species list.
     “Blue whales have been stable for the last 20 years,” Black said, saying there are about 2,000 in the population that migrates north to south along the west coast of North and South America. Worldwide, the population hovers between 10,000 and 25,000, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
     “They breed further offshore, in the middle of the equator far off the coast of Costa Rica,” Black said. “So they have to find each other, whereas humpbacks breed along the shore so it’s easy to find each other.”
     There are also human-caused complications to this process. Despite a hunting ban in place since 1966, the Pacific Ocean is laden with shipping routes and large noisy commercial freighters.
     “Blue whales rely on sound,” she said. “They make low frequency sounds that travel thousands of miles in the ocean. But the shipping noise, air guns used in the search for oil, Navy’s use of sonar equipment, cuts down the range they can hear.”
     The issue of a noisy ocean also affects another whale we were fortunate enough to spot, one even rarer in the Monterey Bay — the fin whale.
     The fin whale is the second-largest animal on the planet and is distinguished from the blue whale by a brownish cast to its color. It also has an enormous dorsal fin resembling that of a dolphin or small shark.
     As with most large whales, the fin whale is protected from hunting except in particular cases. Its population has been slow to rebound relative to the humpback, but better than the blue whale. There are an estimated 100,000 fin whales throughout the world’s oceans.
     Within 20 minutes or arriving at the destination, we saw all three species of whales, most of which we managed to see up close. The area was so busy, the ship decided to spend the entire morning just floating and the creatures seemed to surround the ship.
     Jodi Frediani, a staff photographer with Monterey Bay Whale Watch, told some of the whale watchers that she had never seen that many whales in one place.
     Black estimated about 70 whales in the area, including representatives from three different species.
     While an unusual abundance of krill may have factored in the large number of leviathans on an early August Sunday, Black said she hopes that conservation efforts will mean seeing such a collection will someday be not out of the ordinary.

Photos: Matthew Renda/CNS

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