Blue Whale Bonanza

Southern California is having a huge blue whale season.  The American Cetacean Society told CBS having 200 of the coast was “very unusual.” The  Cascadia Research Collective told the LA Times they are investigating why so many are here. This year the blue whales are staying longer, further south and in bigger numbers. So my husband David and I wanted to see this huge crowd of the biggest living thing on earth on our trip to LA.

Friendly Humpback.

Friendly Humpback on the Condor Express Tour the Day before we went

You can go out of Santa Barbara, Redondo Beach, Long Beach or Newport Beach. When the American Cetacean Society, the Audubon Society, behavioral biologist Toni Frohoff or any of the local wildlife experts go whale-watching they seem to pick Condor Express in Santa Barbara. So we figured that was the best one. Plus, the American Cetacean Society volunteers are the guides on the boat, so you know this operation is doing right by the whales.

Condor Express’  75-foot high speed catamaran goes out every day, year-round. Blue whales and humpbacks visit May to November.  Gray whales migrate back and forth from December to April. Condor Express is the only whale watching boat working this spot between Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands.  The guides plying Stellwagen Bank off Massachusetts, in contrast, have it much easier because they get tips from army of colleagues and competitors about where the whales are.

Capt. Dave Beezer says he talks to as many boats on the water as he can to make sure his passengers find whales. But, he’s not convinced this year is so unusual. They’re starting to see this many blue whales every year. “Santa Barabara is becoming the best place in the world to see blue whales,” he says. Many of our fellow travelers were from overseas, presumably they went to LA, then were willing to drive 2 hours to see these whales.

The company is the most expensive–$93 for a four hour tour–but they also have what I think is the strongest guarantee in the whale watching business: You see whales or something else spectacular or you get to go again. Typically whale watches wiggle around, guaranteeing only that you’ll see a marine mammal. Marine mammals are cheap; we saw sea lions and common dolphins before we got out of the harbor.

The reports from the last few days showed plenty of blue whales, but not every day. But they did have humpacks, Risso’s dolphins and a MEGAPOD of dolphins. That’s more than a thousand dolphins, jumping through the water. When I talked to Toni Frohoff about the trip, she was more excited about the MEGAPOD, saying it was something everyone should see at least once.

Blue whales came back from the brink of extinction after the whaling ban, but there’s still so much we don’t know about them. About 1,700 blue whales live in the eastern north Pacific, NOAA says.  “Along the California coast blue whale abundance has been increasing during the past two decades…The magnitude of this apparent increase is too large to be accounted for by population growth alone and, therefore, it is assumed that a shift in distribution has occurred.” In other words, they wonder if whales from elsewhere, say Asia, moved here.

After the sea lions on a buoy, we watched some common dolphins dive and fish. We got out further, towards Santa Cruz Island, then saw some Risso’s dolphins. They’re huge–10 feet and gray, with skin that’s all scratched up.  We could see all these white scratch markings and wonder how they happened. The coolest thing was seeing a big, yellowish glowing spot in the water as the dolphin came up near the surface.

Whale and dolphin are just common English names for animals in the Cetacean order. There’s really no difference other than size, with dolphins being smaller, usually just up to nine feet.  So the Risso’s Dolphin really pushes the boundaries and maybe should be called a whale. (Cetaceans are also separated into two suborders: Mysticeti have  a baleen filter that strains the water for small creatures. Odontoceti have teeth. By that measure, the Risso’s dolphin is still a dolphin. But, the killer whale, beluga, sperm whale and beaked whale become dolphins.)

The captain explained we’d head to a shallow ledge, where the bait food—is compressed into a shorter water column. Blue whales love shallow water. Shallow to them is 300 feet. As we were driving out a regular whale watch customer from Rhode Island started talking about how smooth the ride was about the same time I started sweating and not feeling so good. There weren’t big waves, just swells that made the boat jump up, dive and splash; jump, dive, splash. Capt. Dave told us we’d have to turn around and try the ledge closer to shore.  By now I wanted land more than whales.

But Capt. Dave is a relentless whale hunter. Just as he finally turned, he saw a whale spout behind us. So he turned back and took off for the whales, bouncing the boat. A woman projectile vomited. Crew were handing out barf bags. There were a few greenish people at the back of the boat. I just aspired to be one of those people, dry-heaving.

At first Capt. Dave wasn’t sure what species we were seeing, but as we got closer and saw how big the spouts were, he announced it was the blue whales we’d been hoping for. He saw two pairs and timed how long each dived. Blue whales tend to go under water for  to seven to 15 minutes, he explained. One pair was doing short dives, which makes it easier to see them more frequently. The whales here are paired up, but they don‘t seem to be mating, or at least not producing calves. As the whales surfaced, we’d see how huge they were. Like a school bus, but fast. I’d get so excited to see them, I’d feel fine. (Though my lousy pictures of the blue whales, below, show otherwise.) Then they’d disappear and I’d go back to getting sick. David had already thown up a couple times downstairs. Capt. Dave kept us out an extra hour, making sure that we got a good chance to see the blue whales.  Finally I threw up and we turned us around. The ride back–90 minutes–was much smoother.

Where to Go See Whales

Where to See Wildlife Around Los Angeles
Condor Express has $98 cruises and a handy schedule of what you might see in each month.
301 W Cabrillo Blvd., Santa Barbara, CA (805) 882-0088

Voyager Excursions International Boardwalk at Redondo Beach Marina 181 N. Harbor Dr. Redondo Beach CA 310-944-1219, $25

Harbor Breeze Cruises leaves from Rainbow Harbor, 20 miles north of LA.
100 Aquarium Way, Long Beach, CA

Newport Landing Whale Watching ($30 to $69)
309 Palm Street, Newport Beach, CA (949) 675-0551

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