Saturday October 27, 2007: Close Encounters of
the Cetacean Kind
I usually compose these trip reports from beginning to end in a start
to finish timeline and try to mention all the birds and mammals we
encounter along the way. I'm going to digress from that format this
time for a couple of reasons. For one we have no more seabird trips
planned for the rest of the year. I'm in no hurry to get the report
out onto the Internet with the hopes that it will incite interest
in our upcoming trips. Now I have the luxury of time to attempt to
convey an experience I'm certain I'll be unable to describe as eloquently
as I would like.
Anthropomorphism has been given the bum rap by science. It's loosely
defined as "ascribing human characteristics to non-human things."
I'm not going to try to avoid that, but I am going to stay away from
embracing anthrocentricism, "the belief that humans are the center
of the universe." The spellchecker doesn't like that word and you
won't find it in a dictionary but I think you get my drift.
Actually I wish you could have been there drifting with us on Monterey
Bay under the spell of a pair of Humpback Whales. Our close encounter
of the cetacean kind starts off innocently enough. As usual we spot
a number of blows in the distance and turn the boat in that direction.
A trio of Humpbacks surfaces and we enjoy reasonably nice albeit distant
views of them.
Our ten-year-old chummer Tayla Easterla runs up the side of the boat
to near the window of the wheelhouse where I'm sitting. I can hear
the excitement in her voice. "Oh my gosh, whales, I've never seen
one before!" she says in astonished amazement.
I look out the window and get a vicarious thrill from seeing the delight
in her eyes when the explosion of a whale blow comes from right below
the rail where she is standing. With the sound and mist comes the
gigantic apparition of the whale itself. Tayla's expression changes
from delight to fright. Her jaw drops and her eyes are the size of
saucers as she jolts back away from the rail as if it has just given
her a shock. Had she jumped the other way, over the rail, she could
have easily landed on the slick, black back of the whale.
And then a second whale surfaces just on the other side of our first
Humpback. I'm as surprised as Tayla. I say the word Holy (followed
by a noun), Richard, the whale is right next to the boat!" Richard
looks over at me and calmly takes the boat out of gear. The pair of
cetaceans swims to the front of our bow as if trying to halt our progress
and resurface again right beside the boat on our starboard side. Over
the P.A. I say, "This is your lucky day, it looks like we have a couple
of friendly whales here."
"Friendlies" are how they are referred to in the whale watch dialect
of behaviors. They are people watchers who show an active interest
in the boat and those on board.
I've worked on more than fifty whale watches this year and ten day-long
seabird trips. We had a Friendly on only one other trip that I was
aboard and the encounter lasted only five minutes before the whale
left our vessel to go visit the people on another boat. I've had the
pleasure of being on trips with Friendlies only three or four other
times but never with two at a time like this. Before know it I too
am running around the boat as excited as ten-year-old Tayla.
The pair of Humpbacks circles the boat, appearing at the stern and
then back around to port. One of them dives under the bow, where most
of us are now positioned, and lifts her flukes into the air right
beside us. Her head is under our keel. All of us listen for a thud.
She is so very close but does not make physical contact with our boat.
She hangs like that for a minute or so.
The pair swims around and under the bow and we can see the full length
of the white on the underside of one pectoral fin so we know one animal
is on its side. She is a little too deep for us to make out her eye
but we know she must be looking up at us as we hang over the rail
watching her watching us.
Cameras are being brandished and this time the people with the little
point and shoot cameras are getting the best shot whilst those with
the expensive telescopic, image stabilized lenses are simply too close
to the whales to get a decent shot.
The whales continue to circle the boat at varying distances. They
are so close I can sense how slick and slippery their waterlogged
skin must feel. This may be as close as anyone ever comes to touching
a live Humpback Whale from a boat.
The mist of their blows surrounds us and we can easily discern the
distinctive smell of whale breath.
The whales now bellow as they blow. In the vernacular of whale behaviors
this is known as a trumpet blow and is thought to involve some excitement
on the whale's part. It is observed in feeding congregations and in
interactions with other whales. This time it seems to involve us.
Since we are adrift Richard is on deck with everyone else. "They can
go on doing this for hours sometimes," the voice of experience says.
Several times on the whale watches this year we have observed Humpback
Whales playing with kelp patties. They like to drape it over their
heads, slap it around with their flukes and wrap it around themselves
as they roll around in it. We have no real way of knowing what their
motivation is for this type of behavior. When people ask me why they
do this I answer, "There aren't many toys out here for them to play
with." In other words I haven't a clue but it looks a lot like play.
The whales interact with us for twenty minutes before going on their
way to wherever it is they are going and we do the same. We go back
to the business of pointing out birds to one another and all too soon
we are back at the dock again.
It takes a while to soak in. After dinner I'm pretty wiped. I can't
bear to be in the room with the television on. I find my way outside
to sit on my rock alone in the garden with the stars shimmering overhead.
"What was that all about?" I wonder as I replay the episode with the
whales over and over again in my mind's eye.
I will never really know just exactly what the two whales were doing
or why they were so interested in us.
Knowledge may be absent but this sense of wonder is all I require.
I can't help but wonder if the whales wonder about us as well.
See Don Roberson's take on the day with more photos at: http://montereybay.com/creagrus/MtyBay27Oct07.html
It is also a great day for seabirds. We get off to a fast start; the
first hour and half are action packed. The pair of wintering HARLEQUIN
DUCKS are inside the harbor and we find another male in with some
SURF SCOTERS off Cannery Row, as a WHITE-WINGED SCOTER
flies by. On the kelp canopy there are both SNOWY and GREAT
EGRETS along with a GREAT BLUE HERON. RHINOCEROS AUKLET,
COMMON MURRE, and PIGEON GUILLEMOT are seen along here
but the icing on the cake is the ANCIENT MURRELET off Otter
Point. Off Pt. Pinos we stop for a RED-NECKED GREBE.
The wind is almost nonexistent so we opt to do something we rarely
get the opportunity to do; we head south toward Pt. Sur. Not too far
out we start finding shearwaters in different flavors: SOOTY,
PINK-FOOTED, BULLER'S and then Todd Easterla calls out
MANX SHEARWATER. In a short while we also get some great looks
at FLESH-FOOTED SHEARWATER of which we see five for the day.
NORTHERN FULMARS are ubiquitous as are BONAPARTE'S GULL
but a single COMMON TERN is a surprise.
Speaking of gulls, Jeff Poklen and Dan Singer are having a great time
sorting through the gulls and we end up seeing 8 species for the day
with THAYER'S and SABINE'S being the best. BLACK
-FOOTED ALBATROSS number a dozen.
SOUTH POLAR SKUAS are seen along with numerous POMARINE
We find quite a few RED PHALAROPES with some RED-NECKEDS
mixed in here and there.
CASSIN'S AUKLETS make for 5 species of alcids for the day.
As for cetaceans aside from the Humpbacks, we see a maternal pod of
RISSO'S DOLPHIN with some calves still showing fetal folds and yellowish
heads, and some NORTHERN RIGHT WHALE DOLPHINS put on a nice show of
We manage to make it all the way down to Pt. Sur and from there we
follow the 100-fathom line back to Pt. Pinos. Off of Pebble Beach
we pass through an area where there are thousands of Moon Jellies
with some Sea Nettles mixed in. There are so many it seems surreal.
I declare this area the jelly deli for Leatherback Sea Turtles.
CALIFORNIA SEA LION
For additional photos, see Jeff
Poklen's photo gallery for this trip.
Roger Wolfe for Monterey