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.
Before 2014, we would tell folks on our local whale watching boats that Humpback Whales were not a common sight. After the friendly whale I called Brutus took up temporary residence for three months though late that summer it's been harder to say that.
Recently, a number of Humpbacks have taken a liking to Orange County, including one who is almost too friendly for his own good! Another one of these whales bears odd scars of an unknown origin, and another has a strange hunch. A bounty of anchovies has brought these animals to our local waters and we are most certainly grateful. Who knows how long this will last? Only time can tell.
Naturally occurring warm water phenomena bring exotic species to California’s normally temperate waters. Pilot Whales, False Killer Whales, large schools of Bluefin Tuna, Opah, Devil Rays and even a Whale Shark have been seen in the waters off of LA and Orange Counties (including Catalina Island). These sightings have been accompanied by one of the most infrequently seen baleen whales for the US West Coast…the Bryde’s Whale.
While not the largest of the rorqual whales the Bryde’s Whale still reach lengths of up to 55ft and can weigh as much as 45 tons. As is typical with rorquals, females are slightly larger than males and they are typically solitary but will sometimes be seen in pairs or small groups (especially where food is abundant). They will feed on krill and small fin fish like most baleen whales but have also been known to eat the pelagic red crab that have drifted into our area with the unusually warm water.
This whale is unfortunately named for a person responsible for the deaths of many of their species. Johan Bryde was a Norwegian Consul who helped establish modern whaling in South Africa. Fortunately the species was elusive and widespread enough to avoid extreme decimation and a population of up to 100,000 worldwide. This overall population is divided into several stocks with some being far larger than others. NOAA/National Marine Fisheries estimates the population for the California/Oregon/Washington region to be a scant 12 individuals, as many as 300-500 live in Hawaii, and the Eastern Tropical Pacific thrives with around 10,000 of these whales.
Adding to the enigma of the Bryde’s Whale is its close appearance to other whales. It shares the rorqual form, falcate dorsal, and dark coloration of the Fin and Sei whales, so it becomes vital to look for important details when identifying these animals. Fin Whales have asymmetrical coloring, while the Bryde’s whales do not, and Bryde’s whales also have a distinct trident of ridges on their rostrum unique to their species. A population of almost 50 in the Gulf of Mexico was granted special legal protection in the US due to genetic distinctiveness, some whales once recognized as subspecies of the Bryde's Whale are considered their own species (Omura's Whale) or are under consideration for that status (Eden's Head Whale).
The surface intervals of the Bryde’s Whale and their behaviors are difficult to predict at the surface, making them more difficult to observe at the surface. To properly identify the whale, it becomes important to get photographs of the rostrum whenever the opportunity presents itself (while at the same time following good boating guidelines).
In 2014 I was able to record six days with confirmed Bryde’s Whale sightings, taking place from June 3rd to August 19th. Almost all of these sightings correlated with red crab. Thus far in 2015 I have recorded four days with confirmed sightings In May and June. The possibility exists of seeing these animals for the next couple of months as we continue to see the effects of unusually warm waters.
Gray Whales are arguably one of the more predictable whales that we watch here in California. We know that at certain times of the migration what direction the whales are supposed to be travelling, we know their habits, and we know that because they are migrating they are more likely to settle into a pattern. But these whales are fully capable of defying our expectations, and the encounters that don't follow the textbook make for some very interesting science.
Case in point, a trio of Gray Whales travelling off of Newport Beach on June 1st, 2015. It is not unheard of for Gray Whales to be still travelling in June, and it is reasonable to see late sightings of multiple whales as the cows with the calves are the last to make the trip back to the feeding grounds. The June 1st sighting however was confirmed to be one cow with TWO calves!
Gray Whales, and all cetaceans for that matter, produce twins very rarely and in the baleen whales there are no credible reports of surviving twins. In 2014, a pair of conjoined twins were birthed in Baja but were either stillborn or died at birth as they would have been unable to survive life at sea. Could this be the first ever case of surviving baleen whale twins in recorded modern history?
There is a possibility, but a more likely and still special answer is that this female has decided to take on an orphan who lost its mother and has mustered the strength to nurse both calves. Adoption is a documented phenomenon in the Southern Right Whale and toothed whales such as the Sperm Whale and Bottlenose Dolphin. Without a DNA test we can never be 100% certain of either outcome, but regardless it is nothing short of spectacular to witness one of nature's finest takes on motherhood in action. I feel that this reflects not only the intellectual capacity of a Gray Whale, but also an emotional capacity. The female not only judged herself able to support an additional calf, but has expressed the desire to do so by allowing both to travel with her on the most arduous migration of any mammal on Earth.
I had a day to do some minor site improvements, the theme has been updated and streamlined and hopefully this will help with loading. I've also added a ton of photos, mostly dolphins and Gray Whales but the summer and the Blue Whales are right around the corner!
The shop is being reevaluated, i'd like to keep making a few bucks but SmugMug was no longer offering what I wanted in terms of viability. Plus i'd like to offer a different variety.
I decided to try something new and made one of those personality quizzes using the engine at www.octoquiz.com. I am interested to see how this plays out. This blog post will have some spoilers involved, so be aware if you intend to play.
The quiz itself features the five species of baleen whale most commonly seen in California. The Blue, Fin, Humpback, Gray, and Minkes are sorted based on some overgeneralizations, and the quiz itself is a little bit of mindless fun.
The Blue Whale personality type emphasizes the animal's massive size and appetite. The Fin Whale personality type focuses on the animal's stealth and speed. Humpbacks are noted for their gregarious and sometimes social behavior. Grays get the nod for their desire to be low key and their migration. Minkes are the shy and cautious type.
It is not uncommon on a whale watch to have passengers rudely dismiss dolphins when they are more interested in seeing a whale. It is not uncommon for me to think to myself that anyone who says that is a bit of a jerk but we'll elaborate on that another time.
Personally, not only do I feel dolphins are a lot more fun to observe, but I also think that it is very important for human beings to take a good look at a dolphin pod. Despite being mammals from very different worlds with very different bodies and abilities, humans and dolphins do have a lot in common.
Cetaceans not only utilize their intelligence as a way to navigate the world, but their strong capacities for emotion are what truly set them apart. While I believe the large baleen whales certainly have a lot of those qualities, the toothed whales (such as dolphin) also share the human dynamic of living in families. For most people, the extended family is a source of strong feelings for better or for worse, and dolphins are no different.
We know dolphins celebrate in times of happiness and mourn in times of tragedy, we know that they have long memories and will take care of the sick and injured when logic may not always call for it. We know that, like humans, these animals have a keen interest in the protection of their children.
Seeing this firsthand on a regular basis, it provides a daily reminder of why dolphins have a special place in the hearts of many, and it also reminds us of why it is perhaps that we want to give these animals special treatment. Since 2013 I am one of the few people in the world fortunate enough to say that on a typical day of my life I see a dolphin. To see these animals challenge the idea that deep emotional capacity is a uniquely human concept is a revelation that I am eager to share. Even with someone who is being a bit of a jerk. ;)
Just a short update, but one that sums up feelings rather efficiently.
Everyone who watches whales does so with high hopes, and high hopes foster expectations. Making my way to Monterey Bay on a recent trip, I initially felt it would be a failure if I didn't see something truly exotic.
I didn't get that.
But nature doesn't reward expectation, she rewards and open heart and mind. This is something I preach but often do a subpar job of practicing. Towards the end of what was turning out to be a fairly exasperating trip with few sightings and bad weather, a young humpback whale decided to take it upon itself to remind me of this. A series of spectacular breaches, and a facial expression that could only be described as excitement, greeted me through the drizzle and wind. Some of the best pictures I have ever taken, and one of the greatest moments of pure joy I have experienced in 2015.
I am under no impression that this was done for my benefit, but that does not mean I can't take something meaningful from the experience. The open heart is the best equipment to have when observing nature, better than any technology or training.
They say that if March comes in like a lion, it will go out like a lamb. I certainly hope that holds true for our local marine life. It has been a very busy few days in Orange County for those working around marine mammals.
Sightings of whales have been plentiful, with the record breaking flow of northbound Gray Whales complemented by Fin, Humpback, and Minke Whales. Dolphin have begun to return to the area as well and sightings of Common Dolphin are returning to their normal levels.
The local California Sea Lions are still in the midst of a famine, although they are not without hope as fish and squid appear to be returning to local waters. Hopefully those that still have the strength to forage will take advantage of this windfall.
On Sunday March 15th , during the first ever PhinFest Film Festival in Dana Point, CA, a headline making Gray Whale passed by the harbor, this Gray Whale was missing its flukes entirely. Video I filmed for my employer shows the whale swimming along at a slow yet steady pace, and the same animal was seen in Point Vicente the following day.
As it turns out, this whale contorts its body and generates thrust with the side of the tail, rather than the now missing flukes, while this undoubtedly causes some sort of pain or discomfort, it seems this whale is admirably coping with its disability. It is very likely that this injury was caused by a line entangled around the whales tail which caused the afflicted portion to atrophy and fall off from lack of circulation. Time will tell how long this animal survives, but there have been multiple sightings of whales with similar injuries since 1985, including one who appeared to have given birth to a calf.
The following day, a Gray Whale was seen outside of Dana Point Harbor entangled in fishing gear. I had the unfortunate distinction of confirming that not only was there a line on the whale, but that the entanglement was wrapped inside the mouth of the whale. A team assembled quickly, and luckily a number of trained responders happened to be in the area studying Fin Whales. Although much of the entanglement was removed, the fate of this whale seems grim.
I guess that's the downside to working around animals that few people really consider and fewer people talk about. When you start to develop those strong feelings it makes animal suffering that much more difficult to stomach, even if it happens due to natural causes as well. Fortunately, night eventually becomes day again and the cycle continues so that the tough times might be balanced with better days.
Nature is not inherently cruel or unforgiving, but there is not always room for a storybook ending.
Today I witnessed one of the most heart wrenching scenes I could have possibly imagined seeing as a deckhand aboard a whale watching vessel. While taking photographs of the California Sea Lions on the edge of the Dana Point Harbor jetty we noticed a female sea lion had given birth, we did not see the pup on our way back in from our previous trip, so the birth had to have taken place within an hour of our seeing the pup.
The baby appeared to move slightly, but while recording video we began to notice something deathly wrong. The female was not attending to her new pup, and before long the listless pup had slid down the edge of a rock and in between two lower rocks, where it stopped moving.
A desperate call to the Pacific Marine Mammal Center confirmed what we had feared, the female had likely given birth prematurely and the pup would not have survived under any circumstances. Right now off the coast of Southern California the local sea lions are experiencing a famine. The normally abundant bait fish and squid these animals typically feed on are further offshore due to warmer water temperatures and only the hardiest sea lions are faring well. Pups and yearlings are faring the worst as their foraging skills and strength are not up to the task, and local marine mammal centers are overwhelmed with severely malnourished patients. Although the photos and videos were taken for my employer, I would not print them here were they my own. Personally, I would only be sharing them with researchers or authorities as appropriate for scientific endeavours, to see if anything useful could be learned.
Nature's mechanism for dealing with disasters such as famine is tough, but logical. The strongest and best adapted animals will survive the hard times and earn the right to thrive and reproduce when conditions improve. The population of animals such as the local California Sea Lions will wax and wane from time to time but barring a major catastrophe will soldier through. Many people accept this, and argue that saving too many of these animals artificially inflates the population and makes mortality events such as the one that occurred in 2013 even more drastic.
I can accept that nature's way can be hard, and I can accept why it has to be that way. However, that in no way means that we have to turn a blind eye to living beings in crisis. Humanity is a part of nature, and for many humans it is perfectly natural to render aid to other living beings provided that the opportunity and resources exist. It is a part of nature for the people who care deeply about the plight of the sea lions in California to want to help. I believe this because humans do not exist in a vacuum separate from nature, we are a part of this world just as much as any other species.
If you have the passion, the time, or spare resources you would like to contribute to helping sea lions locally, the nonprofit centers in Laguna Beach and San Pedro are overwhelmed with patients right now. Along with financial support, the organizations have "wish lists" of items they are in need of. You can find them on facebook as well.