I had a plan for this post to be about the delay of Gray Whales departing their feeding grounds and the tangible effects of a warming arctic on their behavior. It's a topic I consider important but i'm shelving it for the time being to address something even more pressing.
Twice since the calendar rolled over I have been confronted with situations where families have been doing balloon releases to commemorate lost loved ones, something which is actually illegal in the state of California already. The damage done by these releases, intentional or not, is devastating to marine life both directly and indirectly.
It is tough to confront someone when they are in mourning, but it is also aggrivating to see people "honor" the departed's love of the ocean with such a contradictory act. To that end I want to use this blog post to promote Balloons Blow, which I believe is the organization doing the most in the United States to discourage the pollution balloons cause.
Claims that these balloons are biodegradeable are irrelevant if they do damage to the environment before breaking down, and even then those claims are dubious. When a balloon lands either on land or in the ocean animals encounter the trash long before it breaks down with many organisms confusing the debris for food. The balloon is consumed and never digests, creating a blockage in the animal's stomach which can be fatal.
So to quote this great organization I want to continue supporting: Balloons blow...don't let them go!
Learn more at www.balloonsblow.org and support marine life locally and globally!
I was dismissed by many for a number of reasons. While there aren't too many people who defend the credibility of Facebook comments, it just goes to show you that everyone has an opinion regardless of their qualifications. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but what happens when the evidence suggests that I might be right? I probably won't hear much then. Sadly, I would rather have been wrong than have come across the following articles in the past few weeks.
This article is about the damage being done to Orcas by recreational boaters in New Zealand. New Zealand as a nation has a very rich and diverse cetacean population and my personal opinion is that the people there hold these animals in high regard. However, sometimes that beauty and allure leads to risky and questionable behaviors.
This article is terribly heartbreaking. Prior to the declaration of the death of J2 "Granny" another member of the J Pod of Southern Resident Orcas was found deceased. J34 "Doublestuf" (an Orca I personally documented back in September of 2015) was found dead and the initial findings point to a small vessel strike as the cause of death. This death is extremely painful for the pod as he was a young male entering prime reproductive years. A devastating loss for a family of animals that now numbers fewer than 80 once more as the gains from the previous year's "baby boom" have been reversed.
Not that many of my critics would ever be willing to admit that I have a point...
It has been a big week in Orca news lately, punctuated with a visit by the ETP Orcas to Southern California.
The passing of Tilikum at Sea World Orlando was bound to provoke the most discussion. But I was heartened to see that an outpouring of affection for J2 Granny, gone after over 100 years on this planet, made headlines as well.
The thing about Granny? According to unmanned aerial surveys from NOAA (https://swfsc.noaa.gov/news.aspx?ParentMenuId=147&id=22348), Granny was getting skinny. We know that Orcas in menopause remain in leadership roles and that their wisdom and experience guides the pod through lean times. J2 Granny had been observed prior to her disappearance feeding and nurturing one of the younger members of her pod. This despite her once thick frame losing weight at an unhealthy pace.
I think of my grandparents a lot. I am lucky to still have one of my grandfathers and I miss my other grandparents terribly. I know they have all provided for me at some point, and that the life I lead today is thanks to them in no small part. To read these stories of Granny, a wild animal in a family facing hardship, actually sacrifice herself for her grandchildren is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. These animals may yet be able to make a comeback, but the decimation of the Chinook Salmon as a result of human activity is not something that can be overcome through wisdom alone.
Human action to make amends for ecologically damaging mistakes we have made will be necessary as well.
Today with the ETP Orcas there was a very young calf, I am reminded of the other Orca calves I have seen in the past two months. It is a major task to become the apex predator of the Ocean, and a strong family will be required for these little ones to inherit that mantle. It adds a completely new dimension to these animals I feel more people should consider.
Without getting into politics, personal business, or going off the topic of conservation I like to promote, I will say that 2016 was not my favorite year ever on the calendar and leave it at that. Even just within the scope I do cover, there is more to talk about that one of these simple posts really allows.
The "baby boom" enjoyed by the Southern Resident Orcas was short lived and their populations is back down below 80 individuals. Two of the noteworthy losses were adults that passed from circumstances directly caused by humans, while the supply of life giving Chinook Salmon remains at risk. I remain an advocate for breaching the dams that are creating these situations, and for the SRKWs in general. A protection zone has been proposed that would put greater restrictions on vessels observing them, and while this would make it tougher to watch these animals as a whale watcher I think personal enjoyment is a small price to pay for their continued existence.
Southern California enjoyed rare sightings again. Pilot Whale, False Killer Whales, Offshore Killer Whales, Sperm Whales, Brydes Whales, and Striped Dolphin made a spate of appearances. The influx of Humpback Whales, a trend which started in 2014, continued in a big way. I don't know the official numbers but I can almost guarantee that we had a record number of Humpback Sightings by whale watching between Los Angeles and San Diego this year. Blue Whale sightings decreased but that does not seem to be the trend with their population thankfully.
I missed my annual visit to Washington this year but made trips to Monterey Bay and Baja that were very productive. I am hoping to visit more locations in 2017 and hopefully at least one I have never visited before.
Photography remains what it has always been to me. I do not consider myself the best in the business or any sort of elite photographer, but this is the primary mechanism I have chosen to convey a message to the world. "We need healthy oceans!"
Enjoy the next 359 days until Xmas everyone. Don't do anything I wouldn't do.
I have a confession to make, as someone who works with dolphins and whales on a very regular basis I have difficulty sometimes when the folks I accompany to see the wildlife have little reverence for what we are fortunate to see. This is especially true when, in the midst of a massive pod of dolphins, someone inevitably makes a crack about "not wanting to see just dolphins" or "I paid to see a whale".
The ocean environment plays by a very different set of rules as the terrestrial environment we live on as humans. Static landmarks and resources give way to an ever changing environment at the mercy of ocean currents and temperatures subject to change. We have a very productive environment locally and on 9 out of every 10 days at sea we see at least one baleen whale. That statistic has actually slightly increased in the last 3 or 4 years as late season Humpback Whales have extended the summer/fall sightings and closed the gap that occurs prior to the first arriving Gray Whales.
That's not good enough for everyone, and it's a fact of little comfort for folks that show up on the rare poor trip that is almost unheard of during supposedly more productive months. I definitely need to find a more comforting way of reminding people that the Ocean does not respond to wants and expectations. We have different animals at different times of year, and anything out of the ordinary is possible!
I'll keep working and doing my best to find the answer to my dilemma, and i'll report back to you all when I find it here on this blog.
On September 8th, 2016 Newport Beach whale watchers were fortunate to document a number of Humpback Whales that remained in the vicinity for several days, but only one of these whales stuck around for the entire month and also through the entire month of October thus far!
Felix was given his moniker based on a social dynamic observers witnessed during the first portion of his Orange County tenure. Felix was frequently accompanied by another whale who possessed a more gregarious personality and for almost three weeks the two whales appeared to feed and travel together, never being more than a couple of miles apart on each sighting. Named for the popular title characters of the television show/movie/stage hit "The Odd Couple", Felix was shyer and more reserved than Oscar, who would mug boats and fluke frequently. (Disclaimer, if Felix turns out to be a female then the name reverts to "Florence", which was one of the title characters in the gender-swapped stage version.)
The two have since parted ways and Oscar has been seen up further up the coast towards Long Beach while Felix has stayed to feed on anchovies found closer to Orange County. I highly encourage anyone who has been lucky enough to see this whale to follow its progress on www.Happywhale.com!
We have a new local hero! A Young Humpback Whale known as "Tejon" has emerged as one of the new most popular whales this season. Filling a void left by Wally and Wilma, Tejon is showing that even the younger whales can have a big personality!
With so many breaches, peduncle throws, pec slaps, and muggings to its name, this whale has captivated the hearts and minds of thousands of whale watchers! Named for the arc and cross shaped scar that resembles the symbol for Tejon Ranch (north of Los Angeles), this Oceanic Ambassador will hopefully inspire those who witness its majesty into good deeds for the ocean!
Back in June of 2016 I took what is perhaps one of the best three photos I have ever taken, and certain my favorite ever shot of a Humpback Whale. We dubbed this whale "Wally" because why not? After seeing this whale every day for a week we felt a need to have a name for it when talking to passengers, and while I generally don't care much for whale "nicknames" when you have a whale as personable as this one was...you just have to smile and give in.
Wally passed away and washed ashore on June 30th, 2016. Just over a year after my first encounter with her. We learned she was female for the first time during the post-mortem examination and although the name didn't conform to human gender-standards it certainly stuck well enough for national media outlets around the world to use the name in their articles and broadcasts.
The first encounter with Wally saw her engage in multiple breaches, tail throws, along with pectoral slaps and mugging. She breached so close to the boat that the people got wet! We would see this whale almost daily from June 19th all the way through August 1st in 2015.
Wally the Humpback Whale was the most amazing Humpback Whale I have ever had the privilege of being around. I consider whale watching to be at its best when whales grace us with their presence, but Wally went above and beyond that. If you were respectful when boating Wally would frequently swim underneath you and roll to the side to look up. Wally lifted up a massive pair of flukes, but not every time, and on certain instances the lifting of the tail would be prelude to an incredible breach.
I first encountered Wally on board the Patriot during a late day whale watch that took us from Newport Beach down to Laguna Beach. She executed a series of incredible breach in stunning light with an amazing backdrop. This touched off a series of almost daily encounters that would last all the way to the beginning of August.
During her time in Newport Beach this whale befriended another whale we called Wilma/Wilmer. For about two weeks these whales were close companions, devouring a shared meal of anchovies until the supply diminished and the two moved on. Wally was last seen by us on August 1st, 2015. Wilma was last seen August 2nd.
Wally was the first herald of the greatest Humpback Whale season in the history Orange County Whale Watching. Before Wally, few of these Humpbacks were ever seen on such a consistent basis. This whale will hold a place in history, but more importantly she will hold a place in the heart and memories of thousands of people who visited Newport Beach to witness the majesty of the Humpback Whale.
May was a great month for seeing Humpback Whales in Orange County, well...by our modest Southern California standards anyway. The fine folks at Happywhale.com have continued their awesome work keeping photographers informed about the whales they are documenting.
Several of our recent sightings have been previously documented in both the Monterey Bay and in the Channel Islands. One of these whales is missing a piece of the fluke and dates back to pictures taken in Mexico back in 1999. This potentially makes it one of the older whales we have recently documented since many whales we have seen are probable juveniles given their small size.
We will continue to document these whales as they are seen, and I will continue to keep updating the progress on this page as well with new photos as frequently as possible!
This whale is listed in the Cascadia Research Collective catalog of Humpback Whales as CRC-10880. The reason for the damage to the tail is unclear but the injury does not seem to have had any lasting impact.
It is common to wax nostalgic about the Gray Whale migration and frame it as a test of endurance for a very unique species on the road to recovery from the brink of extinction. The resolve and dedication of these animals to their task of which their entire agenda for the year revolves around. But what is not considered often is a part of the migration that some people may find distasteful. The role of the migration in the development and nourishment of the Bigg’s Killer Whale, also known as Transient Orca.
Unlike the Resident Orcas of the Salish Sea and the Pelagic (Offshore) Orca around the world who devote a lot of their time to the consumption of fish the Transient Orca subsist primarily on other marine mammals. They are the only cetacean to include mammals as a large portion of their diet. The only other marine mammal to share this trait are Polar Bears, who do feed on pinnipeds a lot and on cetaceans from time to time. Transient Orca are arguably the only predators of fully grown Baleen Whales, even large sharks only target calves in rare instances. Documented kills and attempted kills on Blue Whales, Fin Whales, Humpback Whales and more can be found with basic internet searches.
The Gray Whale migration is an important part of the lifestyle of the Transient Orca of the North American West Coast. With the bulk of the world’s estimated 30,000 gray whales travelling between the Bering Sea to Baja and back it creates hunting opportunities for these voracious predators. A fully grown adult male Transient can consume 500 pounds of meat in just one day. Gray Whale calves provide an important source of food and as many as 30% of all Gray Whale calves born each season will fall prey to the Orca.
Experienced Gray Whale mothers will keep calves in shallow waters that Orcas do not care for and know the best ways to evade their enemies, but the feast and famine lifestyle does not always allow for a careful pace. If the baby is not born at the right time, fails to grow quickly, or if the female is losing calories too rapidly she will be more vulnerable to predation. The Transients also know the best spots for ambushes along the way, with one of the earliest gauntlets being Monterey Bay in Central California. One naturalist I have met theorizes that this is because the northbound Gray Whale calves by the time they reach the bay are much better targets. They lack the strength to defend themselves but possess more meat that southbound calves or calves just leaving Mexico. A Gray Whale calf grows 50 pounds per day and an extra month of development mean 1500 more pounds of calf to target.
Hugging the coast is relatively low risk or the female Gray Whales but it does provide a safer, albeit slower route. However, upon entering Monterey Bay they find themselves having to go into the bay, where waters can still reach depths of over 2000 ft. Crossing the mouth of the bay leaves them even more vulnerable and is very risky. In April of 2016, Orcas have invaded the Bay without mercy and have made many kills of Sea Lions, Seals, Dolphins, and Gray Whale calves. The female is not defenseless and will fight to protect her baby until the cause is lost, but numbers almost always favor the Orca. In extremely rare instances Humpback Whales have been known to attempt to defend Gray Whales but this is not always successful or something gray whales can count on either.
It pains some people to think about this fact of life, I myself want nothing but the best for the animals I care for but a good naturalist must accept that this is a part of life. I like to think of it as that the Orca babies need to eat also and that in nature an animal’s cuteness and human aesthetics are irrelevant in the circle of life. The Orca utilize the Gray Whale migration as a source of food for growing families and as a chance to show their young the hunting techniques they will need to support the pod later in life animals must consume other animals to survive, and predatory mammals need to kill even more to provide the nourishing milk that their young depend on in the early stages of life. Just because they consume another “likable” animal does not make that tragic. Maybe one doesn’t find the salmon consumed by Resident Orca as appealing or cute as the sea lions or young whales consumed by the Transient Orca, but the declining population of Chinook salmon compared to the large stabilizing population of California Sea Lions make the lifestyle choice of the Transient Orca to appear far more prudent. It makes more sense to be happy that the population of Gray Whales is strong enough to support the Transient Orca, in the same vein that a recovery of Salmon in the Salish Sea would benefit the Southern Resident Orcas.
The role of the apex predator is to provide a counterbalance to otherwise unbeatable fauna. Occupying the top of the food chain comes with a great price, failure to thrive and injury is punished far more severely the higher a species ascends. Greater risks can be associated with greater rewards but only the most intelligent hunters are able to traverse such a fine line in the unforgiving ocean environment. The Transient Orca play the part of the unstoppable force in opposition to the baleen whales’ immovable object. Humans, especially those who consider themselves conservationists or naturalists, should not reject the aspects of nature that they find unappetizing by their own personal standards. Predation is a part of the natural world and is responsible for maintaining the balance of ecosystems. To understand the relationship between predator and prey is to learn fundamental truths about where these animals live. The knowledge gleaned can help preserve these animals and the waters they inhabit so that future generations of humankind can live alongside them as we do, hopefully in greater harmony that what exists now.
If you are reading this blog I would like to offer a bit of advice that sounds counterproductive. Stop reading it, and start booking a trip to get out on the water here in Orange County! February is prime time for the Gray Whale migration and not only are large numbers of whales being seen, but we are starting to see more of the unique behaviors that gradually show themselves as the season progresses. Along with the usual fluking and breaching, we are also seeing courtship among the adults. We are also starting to see handfuls of the tiny calves!
But you don't have to be on a boat either. Back in December of 2014 I wrote a short pieces on where you can watch marine life from shore in Orange County. Check it out!
So recently I was invited to submit images to www.happywhale.com as part of their ongoing efforts to identify individual whales. I do not normally accept requests like this but not only does the site really impress me but the chance to participate in some SCIENCE is too great to pass up! The naturalist in me is eating up this opportunity to be a part of such a great project.
But that's not what spurred me to write this post. Going back through pictures as far back as 2012 I cringed at not only the quality of images I ounce found stellar, but at missed opportunities I had. Upon reflection though, I am certainly glad I feel that way, because it not only shows that my skills have improved over time, but that I have thankfully raised my standards in accordance.
So not all of these pictures that end up on Happywhale are going to be the greatest images. My only reply to that can be "So what?" Because I already have a vanity project (this website) and now is the time for science!
I can hardly believe it is happening, but having received a shiny new passport in the mail and seeing an unexpected Facebook post I now have a plan in place to visit San Ignacio Lagoon to see the Gray Whales! While within their lagoons Gray Whales are known to seek attention. Thankfully human activity in these lagoons is regulated, but the awareness and funds raised have been critical towards preserving the habitat.
I look forward to sharing not only the photos and stories from the trip, but I heavily encourage all of my site visitors to check out The Whaleman Foundation to see how you might be able to be part of one of these excursions one day! Founder Jeff Pantukhoff has organized one of the most effective non-profit groups to help lobby for whales all around the world and runs a top notch, safe, and comfortable trip that has been given rave reviews. A handful of cancellations have recently opened up for trips that usually are booked solid a year in advance!
There are two varieties of Pilot Whales, the Short Finned and Long Finned. The Long Finned Pilot Whale is not found in the Pacific Ocean within the Northern Hemisphere, thus we know that we saw Short Finned Pilot Whales on this day. However, it is the Long Finned Pilot Whales who have made the most headlines lately as they are sadly the targets of the Grindaraps in the Faroe Islands, which see many of these beautiful animals killed.
Pilot Whales are extremely family oriented and go to great lengths to foster strong family bonds. They are one of the species of toothed whales who have been documented grieving over lost calves with unique funeral processions, where the deceased calf is passed amongst the adults one at a time.
I am encouraged by today's sighting because it reinforced the message that these amazing creatures share more in common with humans than we give them credit for, and our own species' need for strong family ties suggests a unique bond between us and cetaceans. Although Primates and Cetaceans are wildly different mammals, there are undeniable levels of intellect, reasoning, and emotional capacity shared between them. I think recognizing this common ground will be vital towards protecting these animals in the future.
So the Coastal Commission also tacked on the stipulation that the import and export of Orcas to and from Sea World San Diego was also going to be prohibited. In essence, Sea World is getting their way with the project but only as a way to provide the best possible habitat for these animals as the Orca program at SWSD reaches its sunset.
I can't help but think this creates one of the best possible outcomes for a number of reasons.
Within California, many of the long term goals for freeing these animals have been reached or made possible. With a breeding plus import/export ban it puts a shelf life on the last captive Orca program in California. I also am doubtful that the water quality of a coastal sea pen near California would be consistently clean enough. The expanded Blue World is an insignificant fraction of a wild Orca's habitat but it is far preferable than their current facility.
Although some advocate the creation of a local sea pen, I admit to being wary of the concept in the case of SW's Orca. Unlike Tokitae/Lolita of the Miami Seaquarium, the Sea World Orcas are not good candidates for release, and those captive born would face a very difficult existence.
Sea World should not complain about this decision, but rather welcome it. After all, with permission granted to build Blue World they have an opportunity to try and back up their claims about captive Orca health. Why not be transparent about the process and allow independent examination? Why not use Blue World as the ultimate test to show that their other facilities in Florida and Texas can work given the same upgrades?
Honestly, I think the corporation is scared that they know their claims will not hold up to the test of time.