Mark McDermott

Blue whales still feeding in local waters

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A blue whale's fluke dwarfs dorymen Nick Doyle and Steve Yun and their boat. Photo by Anthony Vela

Our hungry blue visitors have stayed at least a while longer.

An estimated 50 to 80 blue whales that arrived unexpectedly in local waters a little more than two weeks ago are still feeding heartily just off the coast. The whales are an endangered species – only 10,000 to 16,000 exist worldwide – and have not been seen in these numbers locally in recorded history. But a bloom of their favorite food, a tiny shrimp-like crustacean known as krill, has continued to draw the whales as close as a mile offshore.

“The food is not depleting, so hopefully this will keep going for a while,” said Craig Stanton, one of the four skipper/owners of the whale watch boat Voyager. “There is no lack of whales.”

A smaller number of blue whales showed up last year a little further offshore. Most stayed until October, and some until December. The whales migrate to Mexican and Central American coastal waters during the winter season to breed and birth in warmer waters.

John Hildebrand, an oceanographer with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, said the appearance of the whales may be related to their slowly rebounding population. More than 2,000 whales feed in California waters, considerably less than a historical population that was over 10,000 prior to being driven to near-extinction during the era of whaling.

“You can’t actually put yourself inside the head of a blue whale but there are other factors that could be causing this – they are following their prey, ingesting these krill, basically little shrimp-like organisms,” Hildebrand said. “And actually, despite their size, they are quite picky. They like particular kinds of krill.”

The whales eat up to 8,000 pounds of krill a day, or about 1.5 million calories. Naturalists have counted roughly 200 blue whales feeding from Palos Verdes to Malibu in recent weeks.

The national CBS Evening News ran a piece on the phenomenon on Sunday night that filmed on and above the Voyager, which in its inaugural season as a blue whale watching boat has been taking 400 to 600 passengers out on three trips daily. Other harbor passenger boats, including the Coroloma, Tradition and Highliner, have also been called into service to meet the huge demand.

Redondo Beach Marina property manager Leslie Page said the blue whales have provided the perfect antidote to the so-called “bummer summer,” the unseasonably cool weather that devastated area restaurants and other visitor-serving businesses.

“I have not seen the numbers yet but I think the attention this has brought has really made a difference…I am praying that this helps the entire South Bay economy, and it makes people realize, hey, we are here – remember little Redondo Beach Marina,” Page said. “We have a really big harbor and a lot to offer, and not just pretty blue whales.”

Along with the whales has come a near-frenzy of watergoing activity, as boaters, paddleboarders, and kayakers have rushed to get a rare close up view of what is believed to be the largest animal to ever live on Earth – up to 110 feet in length and weighing as much as 200 tons. All the activity caught the attention of the NOAA Fisheries Service, which last week issued a reminder that the whales are protected both under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Mariners are advised to avoid disturbing the whales by attempting to stay 100 yards away, staying clear of the path of any whale, and not moving faster than the whale or in between two whales.

Diane Alps, a naturalist with the Cabrillo Whale Watch program, said that at least one young whale has been observed, underlying the reasons for not disturbing the animals.

“We are seeing cow-calf pairs,” she said. “A 40-foot long whale hardly seems like a baby, but cow-calf relationships are fragile in a really special way, especially when in feeding grounds. We would never want to separate a mother and calf or disturb feeding. Even something as harmless as a kayaker – we don’t know the impacts we could be having.”

The whales have apparently reacted to all the attention. Stanton said the Voyager crew has noticed an interesting behavior by the group of six or eight pairs of whales nearest the harbor entrance – they tend to leave their favorite feeding spot during the weekends, when water traffic is intense, and then return on weekdays, when things are mellower.

“There is something in that particular area holding them there, probably a little nook on the face of the [underwater] canyon wall funneling nutrient rich waters to that little spot,” Stanton said. “They’ve been working that spot two weeks.”

The Voyager was spotting 20 to 28 blue whales as well as a few humpbacks and Minke whales each trip last weekend. Things slowed somewhat this week, with the three trips on Tuesday spotting seven to 10 blues.

At other times, however, the whales seem curious about the humans coming into their vicinity. A few whales have repeatedly surfaced within feet of the Voyager, and various paddleboarders have reported essentially being followed part of the way back to shore by whales.

Paddleboarders Scott Rusher, Scott Rosen and Jean Paul LeBosnoyani had a very close encounter with a group of whales last Sunday. Rusher took LeBosnoyani, who is only 11, on his first paddle far from shore to see the whales. It was such a foggy day that just outside the Redondo breakwater they encountered a standup paddler so disoriented he thought he was in Manhattan Beach. They proceeded four miles out until finally, through the mist, they began seeing spouts and hearing the heavy breathes of blue whales. They found a small group of paddlers sitting on their boards peacefully watching a group of whales feed.

Rusher was paddling when he caught a glimpse of a whale just beneath him. It kept getting closer, and closer, and closer, and finally surfaced within feet of him.

“If I was any closer I would have been riding it. We saw the mouth, the back, the eyes as big as a basketball,” he said. “The tail looked like an airplane wing…It came up probably eight times as we were going, just a big arc and then its tail was up. We high-fived each other – the tail had to be something like 15 or 20 feet wide. Just incredible.”

As they started back to shore, a whale pulled up just ahead of Jean Paul, so close that he actually was carried by its draft.

“He got kind of in its slipstream. He was being pulled along and was not even paddling,” Rusher said. “His eyes were as big as saucers…It was awesome. It was a great experience.”
View the photos

The Voyager is making three two-hour whale watch trips daily. See Voyagerexursions.com for info or call 310-944-1219.  Last week’s cover story on blue whales is available here. More photos and videos here and here.

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