Whales that is, but not literally. Tuesday was an amazing day for whales in Monterey. There were at least a dozen blues feeding on krill just in one small area of Monterey Bay. And there were two or three times that number of humpbacks sharing the same patch of water. The krill were shallow, so the blues were on the surface most of the time.
Blues, who usually forage down hundreds of feet, don’t spend much time at the surface when feeding, and they cover a lot of ocean on deep dives. After a ten minute dive they may come up a quarter of a mile from where they started. Then they recharge their blood with oxygen in a few minutes of shallow dives at the surface and repeat the pattern with a deep dive.
Many times boats shadowing blues have to cover large distances when they surface far away after a long dive, by the time the boat gets back to the whales they are ready to go deep again. Not today, all the action was up top; short and shallow dives.
Lucky for us blues ignore boats, they don’t mind our company. Other cetaceans, such as minkes and beaked whales, avoid boats.
Humpbacks were also plentiful, and in cooperative feeding groups of two to four whales. They were very active above and below the surface. We were treated to half a dozen breaches, lots of pectoral slaps, surface lunges, and more tail slaps than you could shake a stick at.
Humpbacks are my favorite whale to photograph; their patterns of black coloration and white scars from barnacles, or the barnacles themselves are easy for autofocus systems to work with, and contrasts well with blue water. Other marine mammals with less contrast are much harder to capture in sharp images. They are unafraid of boats, gregarious, very acrobatic and just plain charismatic.
Today we saw threesomes and foursomes cooperatively feeding in very tight formations.
This is shaping up to be a good year for whales, as long as the winds stay strong and cyclical. It’s a welcome reprieve after a slow summer in 2011.
As the Pacific whale populations begin their slow crawl back from the abyss (we killed over 95% of all the world’s whales) the threat to their return is still mankind, but no longer just harpoons.
There is still pressure from whaling- Japan and Norway and Iceland are the worst offenders, but we are killing whales here too, with shipstrikes and fishing gear. A shipstruck fin whale washed ashore in Marin last week, two years ago a blue and the fetus she was carrying came ashore at Bean Hollow in San Mateo county. Whales killed in deep water will not come ashore, so we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
This year saw a plethora of entangled whales off the California coast, some were saved, some not. I’m very concerned about the timing of our crab season; we fill the nearshore waters gray whales migrate through with tens of thousands of snares at just the time they arrive. The grays had a good calving season this year, but are still at less than a third of their pre-whaling numbers.
We can use newly developed technology like drones and remote sensing to know where whales are and try to kill fewer of them. In the not too distant future, if we apply ourselves we will be able to both warn and teach them how to avoid us.
The whales we visited today knew we were there and know we are not a threat.
I hope we can all just get along.