Photographs courtesy of Community Media Lab blog Susanna’s Apron.
The thirteen passengers on the Friday whale watching trip led by Sanctuary Cruises couldn’t have asked for more. Whales, mostly humpbacks, dove in and out of the water at a clip that impressed even Captain Mike Sack and marine biologist Dorris Welch, who led the excursion and operate Sanctuary Cruises.
Welch, who told me that after a few years as a whale watching docent she still thinks there’s “honestly no average” to how many whales a trip might see, was astonished by the outing’s haul. According to Welch, whale watching groups often see less than five whales, but Friday’s trip saw at least a dozen. She also said breaching – when whales jump out of the water – is relatively uncommon, but Friday’s expedition saw the occurrence many times.
The event was open to participants of the Santa Cruz Community Media Lab and two CML bloggers attended with their kids. Tourists from St. Louis and Germany were also on board. As the small boat left the Moss Landing docks at 9:45 a.m., the skies were overcast and a couple otters swam nearby. Welch began her scientific commentary almost immediately, explaining that sea otters enjoy the area’s 50 degree water, are found in Central California and Alaska and were hunted to near extinction for their pelts.
For video footage of Friday’s whale watching, check out this YouTube video.
Once the boat got further from shore – it would go 12 miles offshore before returning for the day – the cloudy skies started to burn away. Around 11 a.m. passengers had their first whale sighting of the day, with two blue whales briefly surfacing at a considerable distance from the boat. Blue whales, Welch explained, are the largest animals to ever live on the planet, often reaching a length of 80 feet. She added that the whales frequent the Monterey Bay in the summer months. Sanctuary Cruises emphasizes its use of a marine biologist rather than a plain naturalist, and Welch’s expertise was apparent. The cruise line also differentiates itself from competition because it uses environmentally sustainable biodiesel and has smaller groups of passengers.
Next, multiple humpback whales – which are smaller than blue whales – began to appear beside the boat and Captain Sack decided to cruise parallel to them. According to Welch, the whales dive for six to eight minutes to feed on shrimp-like krill, which led her to her most important whale watching advice. “This is the whale watching game,” said Welch. “First we search for them, then we spot them, then we wait for them.” This is why, Welch added, “the rule is to never take your eyes off the water.”
However, on Friday the whales’ behavior was different. Because the day was a sunny one, phytoplankton were near the water’s surface to absorb sunlight – this meant krill were also near the surface to feed on the phytoplankton. So, rather than diving deep for their food, the humpback whales did lots of lunge feeding, skimming just below the surface to get their fill. The whales would intermittently breach, something Welch said still confuses scientists. The behavior has been explained as a display of happiness, a form of communication, a way to shed barnacles, or a combination of these factors.
After nearly two solid hours of constant humpback whale watching, the cruise headed back to shore at 12:45 p.m. Welch and Sack thought the trip was a very successful one, with more whales and breaching than usual. Plus, only one passenger got seasick.