Monterey Seabirds
October 27, 2007 Seabird Cruise Trip Report

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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."

"Friendly" humpback whales, photo by Jeff Poklen

"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.

Cassin's Auklet, photo by Jeff PoklenFive SOUTH POLAR SKUAS are seen along with numerous POMARINE JAEGERS.

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 bow riding.

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.

Also seen:

NORTHERN PINTAIL
PACIFIC LOON
COMMON LOON
WESTERN GREBE
EARED GREBE
BROWN PELICAN
BRANDT'S CORMORANT
HEERMANN'S GULL
CALIFORNIA GULL
HERRING GULL
WESTERN GULL
GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL
ELEGANT TERN
BLACK TURNSTONE
PEREGRINE FALCON

CALIFORNIA SEA LION

OCEAN SUNFISH


For additional photos, see Jeff Poklen's photo gallery for this trip.

Roger Wolfe for Monterey Seabirds

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Last updated November 2, 2007