However, I was also keenly aware of all the other marine mammal species that I might get to see. At this time the northward migration of the Eastern Pacific Gray whale is under way. Mother calf pairs are running the gauntlet from the breeding lagoons of Baja Mexico to their feeding areas in the Chukchi Sea, off the north coast of Alaska. Along the way, and especially around Monterey Bay Transient killer whales hang out knowing that there will be good hunting to be had with the vulnerable young calves. The Monterey Bay canyon is also a feeding area for blue whales and humpbacks and a small population of minke whales can be found just to the south. And I am not even going to start on the delphinids that frequent the area, but suffice to say I knew that I was in with a chance of seeing tursiops, rissos, and Pacific White-sided dolphins.
We left San Francisco before dawn in order to make down for the 9am trip. It is a 3 hour drive down the coast and much of it was shrouded in fog, common to this stretch of coast in the spring and summer. We drove through a sleepy Santa Cruz, stopping briefly at Emily’s Bakery for coffee and muffins; passed the Moss marine labs and arrived at a busy breakwater in Monterey around 8.15 am. The break water is popular hangout for California sea lions and cormorants alike; they give the area an interesting odor....
By 9 am I was loading onto the whale watch boat still hopeful in my quest for blues. In the marina a sea otter was busy breaking into a shell with a stone; we could hear the hammering over the hum of the engine. It ignored us and continued on with its business. Sea lions were hauled out on any available buoy, sometimes 3 or four of them fighting for a spot. We rounded the breakwater on our way out giving us a fantastic view of a whole slew of sea lions, both hauled out and in the water. Then we were heading out into the bay; apparently a group of killer whales had been reported by fishermen about 4 miles offshore earlier that morning and this was where we were headed. I won’t lie; my heart sank just a little bit. Indeed I may be one of the only marine mammal biologists out there not to get that excited about killer whales! perhaps I am spoilt as I spend so much time in the San Juan Islands but the reality was that I knew with transients around the chances of seeing many other baleen whales would be slim (on top of that the whale watch company was hell bent on getting to the killer whales and announced that they were unlikely to stop for other species seen along the way!). Killer whales; these critters are perhaps best described as oversized dolphins dressed up like police cars (I think Christopher Moore coined that description in his book Fluke),and they have an ego to boot! Ok so, I’m a baleen whale aficionado; except for the singing, flipper waving humpback whale the bristled variety of whale often don’t get the same attention as the showy toothed type.... particularly the little minke, or apparently the big blue!
We reached the killer whales after about an hour’s ride, I had seen a couple of dolphins along the way, though we (and they) were moving too fast to allow me to get an id on the species. The group of 7 transients, with one large male CA20 and a good sized sprouter had recently made a kill, perhaps the night before; there was evidence of slick in the water. But soon after arriving the whales began to travel more, sometimes together, sometimes spread out. Their movements more erratic, which were likely due to a combination of hunting behaviours and perhaps even some evasive behaviours as there were 3-4 large whale watch boats surrounding them. We stayed with the group for an hour and a half. After a while I took the opportunity to talk with some of the passengers about whales – something that I rather enjoy doing when I get the chance and the naturalists were busy elsewhere. On the way back to the marina we were keeping our eyes peeled for any large blows. My hope for a blue had not quite been quashed. Soon a blow was spotted up ahead. A large humpback was cruising around. While the whale did not fluke at all during this encounter it gave us some wonderful dorsal views and I got some id shots worthy of the minke project (“full-frame”). The whale even passed close enough to the boat at one point to allow us to see the great white flippers below the surface.
On leaving the humpback to its business came the realization that I was not going to be crossing the blue whale off my bucket list; for that I had to wait for another opportunity. But regardless of this it was great to be back out on the water observing marine mammals in their element, simply doing their thing. As a graduate student working with archival data I find myself more often desk bound than out on the water. Being on the water and observing these creatures in the flesh is my passion, it is why I got into this field of work and it is why I stay. I am so grateful for Jon to sending me out on this boat on Saturday and giving me this opportunity to see this part of the Pacific. But next time I will bag that blue!