Posts Tagged Moss Landing

Aug 11 2015

Whales putting on a show off Moss Landing

A 50-foot humpback whale, little over a mile offshore Moss Landing Harbor at Monterey Bay, was one of 15 to emerge in near-shore waters right alongside kayaker Giancarlo Thomae -- and one then swam right under his kayak Photo: Giancarlo Thomae,

Photo: Giancarlo Thomae,

A 50-foot humpback whale, little over a mile offshore Moss Landing Harbor at Monterey Bay, was one of 15 to emerge in near-shore waters right alongside kayaker Giancarlo Thomae — and one then swam right under his kayak

This might be the real “Greatest Show on Earth.”

A pod of 15 humpback whales, many roughly 50 feet long and weighing 40 tons, has been roaming a little more than a mile off Moss Landing in Monterey Bay in the past week.

As the big whales put on a show — rising to the surface to fin slap, tail lob and lunge feed — they were close enough to see from shore for free at the north jetty.

The humpbacks emerged alongside expert paddlers in kayaks, as if to say hello, and at times swam right under the small boats. The location is also an easy trip for the big commercial whale-watching vessels, of course.

A whale fluke -- 15 feet wide -- so powerful, they create a vortex in the water. Humpback whales have swum as a close as a mile from this past week shore at Moss Landing in Monterey Bay Photo: Giancarlo Thomae

 Photo: Giancarlo Thomae

A whale fluke — 15 feet wide — so powerful, they create a vortex in the water. Humpback whales have swum as a close as a mile from this past week shore at Moss Landing in Monterey Bay

It also happened at the same time last year. And like last year, as long as acres of juvenile anchovies remain in the area, the whales will continue to feast within close range through August and September.

The event has put Moss Landing on the map as the No. 1 whale-watching site on the Pacific Coast as news of these near-shore sightings has gained attention around the world.

“It was so warm, so calm, it felt like I woke up on a beach in Hawaii,” said Giancarlo Thomae, a Chronicle field scout who is also a marine biologist and captain at Elkhorn Slough Safari out of Moss Landing. “The ocean and sky were like a perfect mirror, and there were 15 whales out front. I paddled out, and at one point, a 50-foot humpback rose up right next to me and then swam right under my kayak.” Thomae’s photos of whales and great white sharks in the past month have been published across America.

Last year to the week, I paddled with Thomae out of Moss Landing into Monterey Bay and the edge of the Submarine Canyon. We had humpbacks emerge within 20 yards of us and in a few hours, had dozens of sightings. This is one of the most electrifying low-cost adventures I’ve ever had.

Just like last year, acres of juvenile anchovies have arrived at inshore areas along the edge of the Submarine Canyon. There are so many fish that the clear water can sparkle in silvers beneath your boat.

The Submarine Canyon starts 100 feet outside the Moss Landing harbor. Just a mile offshore, it plunges to 800 feet deep and, within a few miles, to 1,400 feet. Breezes out of the west push plankton and other feed against the canyon walls, where the feed is then thrust near the surface. That creates feeding grounds where humpbacks and other marine mammals and shorebirds can put on spectacular shows in calm, easy-to-reach near-shore waters.

Over the years, I have paddled here several times. When the juvenile anchovies arrive en masse, we’ve seen 50 harbor seals, 100 sea lions, a dozen sea otters, 50,000 terns and literally miles of shearwaters in an hour or two — along with dozens of whales, some of which have surfaced alongside. Once I was looking to the left at a giant whale tail that jutted up from the surface, when another, just off to my right, arose and showered water on me from his blowhole.

This past week, the ocean was again as calm as a mill pond. Rays of light filtered through high clouds from monsoonal flow looked something like a scene out of “The Ten Commandments.” The whales started spouting a little more than a mile from the harbor entrance. Kayaks hit the water.

An estimated 15 humpbacks swirled, played, dived and surfaced.

“What they’re doing is taking turns diving down and feeding for 10 minutes,” Thomae said. “Then they’re coming up to exhale and get a breath, visit a bit and then go down again for more food.”

I’m a believer that the whales communicate, and in turn, when they find bait fish in abundance, will call other whales to the site to feed. If so, more humpbacks will be arriving there from across the sea in the coming weeks.

A whale approaches and begins dive directly under kayak of photographer Photo: Giancarlo Thomae

Photo: Giancarlo Thomae

A whale approaches and begins dive directly under kayak of photographer

The water is warm. It is full of food, full of whales. This has been one of the strangest years on record for dislocated wildlife from southern waters, and amid that, here is a rare chance to see these friendly creatures — most as big as a school bus — frolic, feed and even pirouette in the air at close range.

Until just three years ago, it hadn’t happened inshore like this. Could it be the start of a new era for Moss Landing and Monterey Bay with an arrival every August?

Or is this a golden age to be appreciated here and now, and nobody can say for sure when we’ll see the likes of it again.

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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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