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.
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.