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.
A lot of folks are going to be very upset with the decision made by the California Coastal Commission allowing Sea World to build their new "Blue World" exhibit, but it is critically important to note the other decision made that has an extraordinary impact on the future of Sea World San Diego.
The $100 million expansion has been approved, but the park will no longer be permitted to breed Orcas in captivity. A prohibition on breeding is, in my humble opinion, the biggest step towards ending Orca captivity.
The way this scenario plays out, at least the Orcas of Sea World San Diego, including some that are absolutely unfit for release to the wild, get a bigger habitat, and no future non-releasable Orca will be born.
Sea World has countered that breeding is natural and that to prevent the animals from breeding is inhumane, but the last time I checked it was unethical to promote inbreeding, and there isn't all that much that is natural about artificial insemination* using samples obtained from other parks.
(Not that there is anything wrong with artificial insemination inherently, when I say artificial insemination isn't natural, I am simply referring to the fact that artificial insemination does not recreate an Orca's lifestyle in the ocean.)
This is the biggest step towards ending Orca captivity in the state of California. The question I have right now is what happens when Sea World wants to transport their animals between parks. Will they be allowed to import animals bred at their San Antonio and Orlando facilities? I hope California will prevent future imports/exports of these animals as well.
When Sea World was at its most relevant, it was in a time where the general public thought that the care provided by humans would suitably sustain these animals despite it being a much different world. Our opinions about the environment at the time were that the ocean was slowly being lost and that concrete tanks would serve as the last best preserve for these animals. We now know that the ocean, and all of Nature, is far more resilient than we give it credit for provided it is properly cared for. We now know that the Orca are such complex creatures that simply providing them with food and health care is not enough. The complexity of the marine ecosystem they thrive in is not within our power to recreate.
Highlighting a recent trip to Monterey Bay, I was amazed by the intensity of the Humpbacks feeding just outside of Moss Landing Harbor. Check out the photo series FEAST OF LEGEND which highlights the insatiable appetite of the most gregarious of whales!
With the local waters on the warmer side, whale watching has gotten tough. The warm water isn't ideal for the small organisms that support our baitfish and krill, thus those animals have moved on and many of the dolphins and whales who eat them have followed suit.
The ocean is always changing, and the one thing you can expect is constant change. It's part of what makes exploring the sea so rewarding, because whatever you come across is unique every time!
As a member of a whale watching crew, and a frequent patron of whale watching trips in other harbors, I frequently come across folks who simply have their heart set on something so specific that it inhibits their enjoyment. This is not a condemnation, because when you go out on the water often enough this is something that inevitably happens. I think it is just part of being human.
But Nature has this way of making something special out of what at first glance appears lackluster. It is part of what makes being out on the ocean so wonderful, and it is an experience that a theme park simply cannot replicate.
Two recent sightings come to mind immediately. Recently, our trip was treated to the sight of a trio of Minke Whales. Now your typical Minke sighting in Orange County goes a little bit something like this:
"We just spotted a Minke whale off to the right and...well it's gone now."
Minke Whales are usually quite shy, come up for one or two breaths and go on their way. This can be attributed to a small size (still bigger than an elephant) and their ability to make multiple feeding lunges under the surface. That ability is shared by all of the rorqual whales but Minkes are able to perform more of the lunges than other whales, and their smaller lungs require less time to oxygenate at the surface. This makes already stealthy behavior even more difficult to track. The Minke Whales we saw this past week however were not diving down. With the anchovies at the surface, the Minkes happily gorged themselves while lunge feeding next to the boat!
A boat full of passengers, many of them who initially came on the boat with other expectations, got the thrill of a lifetime from the humble Minke.
On another recent sighting, a California Sea Lion stole the show from a large pod of Common Dolphin and a Humpback Whale. An whale watcher with some experience will wonder how this is possible, but an experienced naturalist knows that anything is possible. The whale in question was squirrely and not interested in being around boats, so we let it be. The dolphin were majestic as usual, but the sea lion captivated everyone as it messily devoured a young thresher shark!
The small shark never stood a chance as the sea lion dug in with its canine teeth and began the process of violently shaking its prey back and forth to tear it into manageable chunks that could be eaten. The shark was tossed sometimes further than six or seven feet through the air before crashing back into the water, and when a second sea lion and a menagerie of seabirds started to compete for the catch the excitement level ratcheted up significantly.
We see sea lions every day, and sometimes we have to make it a point to our passengers that we will probably forego watching sea lions at sea in favor of using our trip time to look for cetaceans. This is not out of disrespect but since those animals are either on the harbor jetty or the harbor entrance buoy we can pretty much guarantee seeing them as we come back into the harbor later on. Still, it pays to be attentive to the pinnipeds, even on a trip geared towards watching cetaceans!
Recently, I had the honor of contributing to a display at Crystal Cove State Park regarding the unusual visitors to our local seas. Photos, including some from yours truly, are up at Cottage #46 near the Beachcomber's Cafe. Subjects include False Killer Whales, Pilot Whales, Brydes Whales, Guadalupe Fur Seals, and Sea Turtles!
Thanks to the Crystal Cove Alliance for allowing me to be part of a wonderful display and for providing much needed ocean education and awareness to both residents and visitors of Southern California.