Mar 9 2015

Whale of a time being had on Monterey Bay

By Tom Stienstra |

628x471A humpback whale, spending the winter in Monterey Bay, breaches just a short distance from the shoreline.
Photo: Giancarlo Thomae/Sanctuary Cruis / Giancarlo Thomae/Sanctuary Cruis

Outside the mouth of the harbor at Moss Landing, a scene unfolded Thursday morning that was like nothing seen in the past 200 years there in late winter: as many as 30 humpback whales spouting, lunge-feeding and breaching.

The show just a half mile out was easy to see from the jetty.

A vast swarm of anchovies dimpled the water. Pelicans dived to scoop up the small fish. Dolphins were also feeding and jumping like hurdlers in a track meet. A gray whale emerged alongside.

“It’s unheard of,” said Dorris Welch, a marine biologist for Sanctuary Cruises. “Our historical records come from whaling ships that go back to the late 1700s. Going back more than 200 years, no whale records exist that show humpbacks wintering in Monterey Bay.

“In my entire life here, working on the bay, to see this now is a phenomenon.”

It felt like Hawaii. At 10 a.m., the air temperature was already 70 degrees, with an azure sky and calm seas extending across Monterey Bay. From a kayak or boat, with 15 to 20 feet of clarity, you could look down into the water and watch murres and dolphins feed on anchovies, and see the sun reflect off the sides of the whales.

The water was warm, too, for March — 60 degrees as the old sea continues its El Niño trend.

“From the jetty at the mouth of the harbor, you can stand and watch what hasn’t been seen this time of year in recorded history,” said Giancarlo Thomae, a marine biologist and photographer with Sanctuary Cruises. “A lot of days have been flat calm for kayaking and taking photos. A lot of us can’t believe what we’re seeing.”

As with most wildlife, a key is food. Huge numbers of anchovies, with acres of “pinheads,” or juvenile anchovies, have drawn the whales and marine birds to inshore waters.

This is a prime site because of the contours of the sea bottom. The Monterey Submarine Canyon narrows and rises from 1,400 feet a few miles offshore to 800 feet deep within a mile, and then to 100 feet at the harbor entrance. Breezes push nutrient-rich seawater into the canyon and toward land, and as the canyon narrows and rises up, the nutrients are pushed to the surface. It’s the trigger point for one of the richest marine food chains on the Pacific Coast.

Yet even in the days of Cannery Row in Monterey, with some of the largest sardine populations in the world, the events of the past two months never occurred.

One reason is the resurgence of humpback whales, once decimated by whaling. “Populations were estimated as low as 1,200 animals in the entire North Pacific,” Welch said. “Now we think there are close to 20,000.”

The other shift is the amount of food and pristine water quality.

“We think the humpback whales are staying here to replenish and store up fat, to keep feeding,” she said. “There are also immature humpback whales that aren’t ready to breed. They stay instead of migrating south to the breeding and calving grounds in Mexico. It’s part of a phenomenon.”

Last week, a migrating gray whale was also seen joining a pod of six humpbacks in a feeding frenzy, right outside the Moss Landing Harbor entrance.

“It went on for more than an hour,” Welch said. “I’ve never seen that before, a gray whale and humpbacks feeding together, and I can’t find records of that ever happening.”

Another anomaly involves large numbers of long-beaked common dolphins feeding with the whales.

“It’s very unusual to see the dolphins feeding right alongside the whales for long durations,” Welch said. “We had more common dolphins here this winter than we’ve seen in Monterey Bay in the past five years.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be Monterey Bay and Moss Landing without sea otters, many of which are feeding in the channel at the mouth of the harbor. They love eating clams, crabs and fat innkeeper worms. The latest counts showed 144 resident otters at Moss Landing channel and harbor and adjoining Elkhorn Slough.

The anticipation is that female gray whales with calves will arrive in Monterey Bay in April. In turn, orcas, or killer whales, will follow them and provide a once-a-year spring spectacle. The orcas often try to separate juvenile gray whales from their mothers, and then attack and eat them.

For now, you can see much of the action from Moss Landing jetty — bringing binoculars is recommended but not necessary to see the good stuff. On calm days, experts can kayak outside the harbor. Newcomers can rent a kayak and watch from the mouth of the harbor. Whale-watching trips are also available out of Moss Landing and other harbors on Monterey Bay.

In a powerboat or kayak, if you find whales that suddenly emerge in your vicinity, just float, or go into neutral, and enjoy the show. Do not approach closer than 100 yards or do anything that changes their behavior.

On one trip, I was paddling toward some spouts several miles away when a superpod of dolphins started vaulting on my right. A moment later, three humpbacks emerged on my left, so close I could smell their breath from their blowholes. Thousands of pinhead anchovies were suddenly all around me. I took my paddle out of the water and found myself floating amid the scene, euphoric to be so lucky to be alive on this planet.

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