Posts Tagged humpback whale

May 23 2016

Humpback and blue whales feeding in record numbers off SF coast

humpbackAn unusually large number of humpback whales like this one have been seen over the past two weeks in San Francisco Bay. Photo by Lauri Duke.

By Peter Fimrite

Record numbers of humpack and blue whales are feeding off the coast of San Francisco in a display of gluttony virtually unprecedented for this time of year, marine scientists fresh off a weeklong study near the Farallon Islands confirmed Sunday.

The researchers on the 208-foot-long Bell Shimada, which is now docked at Piers 30 and 32 along the Embarcadero, counted between 30 and 60 humpbacks a day and about 10 blue whales over the past seven days. Those numbers are far higher than normal for this time of year, based on similar studies done over 13 years.

“We don’t know if it’s food-driven or water-temperature- or climate-change-driven,” Jan Roletto, research coordinator for the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, said of this month’s massive numbers of hungry humpbacks.

Last year was also a big year for humpbacks. “They’ve been showing up earlier and earlier” every year, she said.

The researchers suspect the giant cetaceans are following prey — including the tiny shrimp-like creatures known as krill, anchovies and schools of small fish. Several humpbacks were seen over the past few weeks feeding in San Francisco Bay near Fort Point, a highly unusual activity for the whales, which generally prefer to be well offshore.

The weeklong expedition, which covered some 50 miles of ocean from Half Moon Bay to Bodega Bay, was an attempt by scientists with the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and Point Blue Conservation Science to document wildlife populations and trends in the area, which is known to be one of the world’s most abundant marine ecosystems.

Marine scientists describe their work on the research vessel Bell M. Shimada

Media: / San Francisco Chronicle

The researchers took water temperatures; measured ocean acidification; counted birds, whales and other marine mammals; and calculated the amount of krill and other marine organisms to determine what drives sea bird and whale abundance. The researchers also took measurements of ocean nutrients, including testing for harmful algal blooms like the one last year that poisoned sea lions and forced closure of the Dungeness crab season.

“We are coming out of El Niño, so we’re hoping to determine what happens in the ocean after an El Niño,” Roletto said.

So far this year, ocean temperatures appear to be normal, she said. That’s a welcome change from last year, when temperatures reached 6 degrees above normal. The high temperatures apparently contributed to record deaths of seabirds and sea lions, a profusion of alien species and poison-spewing algal blooms. No harmful algae has been found this year, she said.

Besides the whales, mass quantities of zooplankton known as doliolids were found in the water, often clogging scientist’s nets. The tube-like creatures thrive in warm bands of water. The team also found that the bodies of some krill have shrunk because of a lack of phytoplankton, their primary food source. Krill in other areas, particularly between the Farallon Islands and the ocean outcropping called Cordell Bank, were much bigger.

Along the Golden Gate Strait in San Francisco, this videographer captured a double breaching when two massive humpback whales shot out of the glistening water simultaneously.

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Jul 9 2015

Whales’ feeding frenzy at Farallones a feast for the eyes

whalePhoto: Peter Winch/Oceanic Society

A humpback whale in full breach last Sunday near the Southeast Farallon Island — researchers stationed at the island counted 93 humpback whales, 21 blue whales and one fin whale in a single hour


In one magic hour Sunday, researchers stationed at the South Farallon Islands counted 93 humpback whales, 21 blue whales and one fin whale, according to Mary Jane Schramm of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

There hasn’t been anything like this verified in modern times.

In addition, onlookers at Land’s End saw eight to 10 humpbacks just a mile offshore — pectoral fin slapping, lob tailing and both singular and serial breaching, reported Nan Sincero of the Oceanic Society and field scout Paul Judge.

At the same time, on a whale-watching trip with the Oceanic Society on the Salty Lady out of San Francisco, Capt. Roger Thomas said he sighted 25 humpbacks and three blue whales, most within range of Southeast Farallon Island.

“It’s like an eating contest out there,” Schramm said.

A vast amount of krill has brought in the blue whales. Large schools of anchovies and mackerel have attracted the humpbacks.

“One blue can consume up to four tons of krill per day when in maximum feeding mode,” Schramm said. “That’s right now, apparently, and right here.”

Blue whales are the biggest air-breathing mammals on Earth. Often double the size of a bus, when they surge to the surface to feed, you might see them emerge with krill-loaded seawater gushing from their giant mouths.

Several factors explain their arrival. Last month, a strong wind out of the northwest pushed across the sea toward the Bay Area. Along with the wind came cold, deep, nutrient-rich water from the edges of the continental shelf, where it surged upward to the surface waters of the Gulf of the Farallones Sanctuary.

When sunlight penetrated that nutrient-rich water, it launched the marine food chain. The most obvious result from this major upwelling event is the abundance of krill. All the critters offshore, from nesting murres and puffins at the Farallones to salmon — and to blue whales — have been feasting.

The result is that there may be no better time to see a blue whale than now. Some avid wildlife watchers can go a lifetime without sighting a blue whale, and yet to say we would expect it on a trip this weekend is mind-boggling.

Yet big blue is not alone. Humpback whales, often about 50 feet and 40 tons — known for their spectacular jumps and pirouettes — also have arrived in high numbers.

With your boat in neutral, humpbacks often will approach as if to show off.

I’ve had them jump right alongside, splashing everyone on board. Another time, I watched a dozen humpbacks jump in half-spin pirouettes around us for an hour. In another encounter, a dozen humpbacks swam in a coordinated circle just ahead of us, blowing bubbles to create an underwater curtain and keep their feed encircled while they took turns diving and then lunge-feeding through the center of the circle.

Last year, in Monterey Bay, I paddled out 10 miles and had a humpback surface so close that it hit me with the spray from its blowhole.

The largest number of sightings in the past week have been by land-based researchers called “Point Blue.” This is the latest incarnation of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory, which contracts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to maintain a presence on Southeast Farallon Island. They are deeply involved in seabird research, but their work includes one-hour daily snapshots, a part of larger efforts to prevent whale deaths from collisions with large vessels.

The second-highest number of sightings have been on whale-watching boats, such as the Salty Lady with the Oceanic Society. Thomas said captains have pinpointed the location of the blue whales, and in the process, many humpbacks have been sighted as well, plus a huge array of shorebirds attracted to the area by feed.

On land, the best sites to see whales at the mouth of the bay have been Lands End and lookouts along the coastal trail on the San Francisco Headlands, and at Point Bonita Lighthouse and cliff-top lookouts along the west end of Conzelman Road at the Marin Headlands.

“The humpbacks at the entrance to the bay have been hanging out for weeks,” Sincero said. “They are in heaven with all the food out there.

“There’s a young humpback I saw that loves to come up to the surface and curl its back, almost like Nessie (the Loch Ness Monster), and has been breaching quite a bit, too.”

It seems every week there is news of another landmark event along the coast. It’s becoming a golden era for the Greater Farallones Sanctuary.

Info: Farallon Islands Whale Watching, Oceanic Society, reserve at (415) 256-9604, whale hotline at (415) 258- 8220;

Tom Stienstra’s Outdoor Report can be heard at 7:35 a.m., 9:35 a.m. and 12:35 p.m. Saturdays on KCBS (740 and 106.9). E-mail: Twitter: @StienstraTom

Purple blobs explained

At low tide this week on the Berkeley shoreline near Ashby Avenue, giant purple blobs covered half of the exposed beach, field scout Stephanie Manning reported.

They are sea slugs — formally called sea hares — from Baja, said Mary Jane Schramm of the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.

“The likelihood is that the die-off is the end stage of a mass-mating event,” Schramm said. “These seemingly ill-favored critters are quite the party animals.”

She said such seasonal mass events occur naturally all along the sea slug’s range to southern Mexico, often in remote, pristine areas.

The sea slugs have been washing up at Berkeley for about three weeks. Many believe their arrival in Bay Area waters, like that of the rookery of great white sharks two weeks ago in Monterey Bay near Santa Cruz, is a harbinger of the formation of an El Niño and a broad offshore warming of Pacific currents.


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Apr 21 2015

Humpback Whales: An Endangered Species Act Success Story?

humpbackgallery04A humpback breaches, catapulting nearly its entire body out of the water. Credit: Amy Kennedy/NOAA

Are humpback whales still endangered, or have their populations recovered enough since whaling ended that they can now be taken off the Endangered Species List?

NOAA Fisheries scientists have spent several years researching this question, and their answer is not a simple yes or no. Instead, the Agency identified 14 distinct population segments of humpback whales, 10 of which we identified as not warranted for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The other four still appear vulnerable to extinction currently or within the foreseeable future and require the continued protection of the ESA.

Humpback Whales Make a Comeback

NOAA Fisheries believes humpback whales have rebounded in many areas, with high abundance and steady rates of population growth. This determination is based on a recent review of the best available scientific and commercial information by an expert group of scientists.

We also identified 14 distinct population segments of humpback whales. A distinct population segment is a term coined in the 1978 amendments to the Endangered Species Act that allows species to be divided into distinct subgroups or populations based on a number of characteristics.

Of the distinct population segments identified, 10 appear to no longer be in danger of extinction or likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. For instance, the West Indies population is growing at a modest 2 percent a year and the East Australia population is growing at an average rate of almost 11 percent a year.

Changing Status, But Not Protection

We determined the abundance and growth rates are high enough and threats low enough for 10 distinct population segments that they are no longer threatened or endangered. This prompted us to propose changing the status of these humpback whale populations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Under the proposed rule, we recommend not including these populations on the ESA list.

This doesn’t mean humpback whales are left unprotected. The other four distinct population segments that still appear vulnerable to extinction will remain under ESA protections as a result of our proposal to extend the protections that automatically apply to the endangered populations to the threatened populations also. In addition, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) provides substantial protections to all marine mammals in U.S. waters, including humpback whales. This protection exists regardless of whether each distinct population segment is listed under the ESA. And for those populations outside of U.S. waters, the International Whaling Commission provides protection from whaling.
Humpback whales still have blankets of protection.

Adding Management Flexibility

The changes we propose are significant because they are recognition that the species is doing well and most populations are growing as a result of the Endangered Species Act protections. And moving forward, having identified these distinct population segments, we now have the flexibility to focus our efforts where they are needed the most, on those specific populations that are in danger of extinction or likely to become so.


humpback_nefscHumpback Whale. (Megaptera novaeangliae) Credit: NOAA NEFSC.

Read the original post here. The proposed rule is open for public comment through July 20, 2015.

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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