Records of some rare events

On Saturday, my wife, two friends and I have taken an Island Packers boat trip from Ventura to do some whale watching in the Santa Barbara Channel. When we arrived I, by chance, saw the Marine Mammal Sighting list, where the most important species sightings from the last month were recorded. As I skimmed over it I was fairly optimistic because there had always been several whales, predominently gray whales, that were spotted on individual days.

The trip started out pretty promising when we had just left the marina and passed a buoy. A huge male, I think, and two smaller female stellar sea lions formed a triplet at the buoy "site": a not so frequent sighting as the crew let us know. Entropically, that state didn't really seem favorable to me but energetically—or rather thermally—the guys must have enjoyed the place very much. Unfortunately, I was a little too slow and didn't get all three on a picture anymore. But I assume the snapshot conveys the main message: small space on the buoy and a humongous sea lion (the one peeking out of the water: look at the head size!).

We went on and met some 555 [1] common bottlenose dolphins, which are ... pretty common. Look at the sightings picture above. While there were in fact two days of no common dolphin sightings—call them rare events if you like—the maximum number of recently spotted common dolphins during one trip or one day was 6,000 on January 19. So, encountering 555 dolphins does not seem to be a rare event.

After having passed one of the 16 drilling platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, a crew member said that we were closing in to one of the most likeliest spots to see whales on our trip: somewhat north of the gap between Anacapa and Santa Cruz Island. We were told that gray whales follow the coast line quite closely on their way to Baja California, Mexico, where they give birth and mate. When they arrive in the Channel region, however, they take a right swing through the gaps between the islands and essentially swim straight south from thereon. Remember that the Santa Barbara region faces the Pacific Ocean in north-south, not in east-west direction. Anyway, the bottom line of us swaying between the islands was: no whale in sight.

So, Captain Jim sped up and got us to the southern ledge of Anacapa, where a California sea lion colony gave us some distraction. These animals are like dolphins pretty curious and one flock approached our boat up to some 10 meters (30 ft). Everybody who has been to Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco knows these animals because they hang there in big numbers on pontoons, making a hell of a noise.

At this point of the trip, we were a little disillusioned because the southern ledge of Anacapa also holds promise for whale sightings. But instead of whales we got to see the arch of Anacapa only. Well, in a sense the arch is at least a rare product because such a beautiful outcome of nature's talent to compose large free-standing symmetrically perforated objects is not found just anywhere.

Shortly after we drove around Anacapa's eastern edge and were headed back for the harbor the crew announced that they had just spotted the spout of a whale and they said it might be "something special". But they weren't sure yet. So, we approached the spot cautiously and, on our way, finally saw a whale spout ourselves. Eureka!

As we came closer and closer and the crew could actually take a look at the "thing" they said that they were now sure: it's a humpback whale! In general, this species is not at all rare to the Santa Barbara Channel region. The Marine Mammal Sighting list at the beginning of this post shows 18 humpback whale sightings in December. However, none were seen in January, which reflects their typical behavior. There are two populations of North Pacific humpback whales. The first one spends the summer off the Alaskan shore and migrates to Hawaii for the winter time. The second population, an approximated 1400 humpbacks, feed along the California Coast in the summer and fall and spend the winter in Mexico and Costa Rica. So, our Saturday's friend should belong to the second population but was supposed to have left already. The crew of our boat said that they couldn't really tell whether it was a whale that had not yet left Santa Barbara grounds—a possible decision I could very well understand—or an early arrival. In any case, they said that it was a truly rare event to encouter a speciesism of this endangered species here at this time.

Our boat followed the humpback whale for roughly 30 to 40 minutes. These whales usually swim close to the surface for some minutes (say, 5). Then, they typically take a longer dive (10-20 min) to feed, which you would realize by the whale clearly showing its humpy back followed by its giant tail fin. I remembered this behavior from the North Atlantic population. In June 2009, I had been on Iceland and my visit to Husavik was one of the highlights during that fortnight trip because I went for my first whale watching tour. We got to see two humpbacks and two white beaked dolphins, I believe. One of the humpback whales even showed an infrequent but characteristic performance of this species: it jumped out of the water. I, however, didn't witness that myself because I faced the opposite direction—too bad.

Our rare Santa Barbara "winter humpback" spouted a couple of times, which the kids aboard loved. But when the whale showed us his unique tail fin for the third time we had to say:

"Have a great day dive!"

Humpback whale preparing to take a deep dive

[1] Figure given by the crew at the end of our tour. By the way, good job counting 555 dolphins. Individually?!