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Superstars of Deep : Whales in Santa Barbara Channel Putting On a Show Unmatched in Nature for Pure Majesty

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stephanie Le Chat looks out over the bow of the 88-foot Condor and can hardly believe her eyes.

“There is no beauty quite like that of the sea,” she says.

It has been quite a week for Le Chat, 29. She came from Europe to be married in Las Vegas, traveled to Arizona, where she met members of the Navajo tribe, and now finds herself surrounded by creatures both wild and wonderful.

She, her husband, Patrick, and 50 others lining the rails of Capt. Fred Benko’s boat have been watching Risso’s dolphins shoot through the water like fluorescent torpedoes.

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They have been marveling at humpback whales bold enough to swim alongside the boat, keeping pace with the slow-moving vessel and popping up from time to time as if to sneak looks at the watchers.

But what have been giving them the biggest thrills are the blue whales, which send plumes of mist high into the sky--in one instance nearly blowing the feathers off a gull--and bare their massive bodies. One whale seems to fly out of the water, crashing back down and causing a splash that’s sure to leave a lasting impression on everybody.

“What you’re looking at, folks, is the largest animal that has ever been on the face of earth,” says Benko, whose boat has made the 2 1/2-hour run from Sea Landing to Santa Rosa Island, where there have been the most whale sightings. “Larger by far than any of the dinosaurs and much, much larger than anything on land today.”

Reaching lengths of 100 feet and weighing more than 100 tons, yet possessing grace and power enough to travel great distances with very little effort, blue whales have taken up temporary lodging in the Santa Barbara Channel.

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They are there because they feed on krill, tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that have concentrated in abundance in the nutrient-rich waters around the Channel Islands.

But the abundance of blue whales is unusual, especially considering that they are still trying to rebound from widespread hunting, which reduced the species from the hundreds of thousands in the early part of the century to near extinction. There are believed to be fewer than 10,000--perhaps as few as 5,000--left.

“In all the oceans of the world, I’ve never seen concentrations of blue whales like this,” says David O. Brown, 35, a researcher who spent seven years studying whales with the Cousteau research team. “That includes the Antarctic, that includes sub-Arctic, that includes Gulf of St. Lawrence (off eastern Canada) where there’s supposed to be a big concentration . . . It’s just amazing!”

John Calambokidis, a research biologist with Cascadia Research, an Olympia, Wash., organization that studies marine mammals and their movements, said population estimates put the number of blue whales that feed along the California coast each summer and fall between 1,000 and 2,000.

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But unlike gray whales, which migrate fairly close to the coast from the Bering Sea to the lagoons of Baja California each winter and back each spring, blue whales are less predictable in their migration habits and tend to remain farther offshore.

“There is a very special occurrence going on out there,” says Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a spokeswoman for the California chapter of the American Cetacean Society. “A lot of people don’t realize that gray whales are on a mission (calving) and only occasionally does one stop (for whale-watchers). But here, these blue whales are in their feeding grounds and you can literally watch them for hours.”

Benko is making the most of the phenomenon, canceling fishing trips and running daily whale-watching trips until the whales decide to leave, which could be today or two months from now. There was a similar occurrence in 1992, the whales appearing in mid-summer and sticking around until Sept. 15.

Benko and co-captain Ron Hart have studied whales and have the whales’ routine down pat. With the exception of one day when the fog refused to lift, they have encountered blue and humpback whales on every excursion for the last month.

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“I really think they recognize the sound of the boat because as the season progresses, we tend to get better and better whale sightings,” Benko says. “And I think this is because these animals are acclimating to the Condor and realizing that we’re not threatening.”

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Leaving Santa Barbara Harbor at 8 a.m., Benko tells his passengers that the crossing to the islands will take more than two hours, then begins dispensing information about the animals of the region.

"(The Channel Islands) have the greatest diversity of pinnipeds (seals and walrus) of any place in the northern hemisphere,” he says, piloting the vessel over the slow-rolling swells. “We have huge elephant seals, up to 6,000 pounds, on the islands right now. We have California sea lions, harbor seals, Guadalupe fur seals, Northern fur seals and Stellar sea lions--all come into the channel at various times of year, particularly at San Miguel and Santa Rosa islands.”

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Benko tells the passengers they might also see common dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall’s porpoise, Risso’s dolphins, Northern right whales and tiny minke whales. As the fog slowly gives way to sunshine, a California sea lion is floating on the surface in a posture known as rafting, sticking its fins out of the water and using them as solar panels to absorb heat.

Farther along in the channel, a blue shark is cruising off the starboard bow, its fins barely visible above the surface. In the same area, a large elephant seal sticks its head out of the water and watches the Condor glide by.

Hart tells of the time late last April, when a group on the boat encountered a pod of killer whales moving swiftly across the surface.

“That same afternoon we got a call from (the skipper of) the Truth,” Hart says. “They saw the orcas (as killer whales are often called) and went closer to look at them and, as they were coming into them, a gray whale pops up right off the front of the bow. The skipper backs down hard to keep from running into this whale and then he sees that it’s injured. It’s right beside him and he leans over to look down at the gray whale and this orca just came up and munched it.”

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Brown explains that killer whales--they are actually dolphins--will attack whales or practically anything else they want. While diving off New Guinea in 1988, he filmed killer whales feeding on a school of pelagic sharks.

“They’d show up with sharks sticking out of the sides of their mouths,” Brown says. “They’d let them go and the sharks would try to swim away and they’d grab them again--like they were playing with them. I saw one literally tear up an 11-foot shark.”

The emergence of Risso’s dolphins off the bow puts everyone’s focus back on the present.

The mammals, some 10 feet long, are leaping playfully and riding the wake of the Condor, giving most of the passengers a much-needed break from the monotony of boat travel.

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In the distance, the first spouts are seen, appearing as broad smoke signals against a hazy white sky. Benko and Hart identify the source as humpback whales, saying blue whale spouts are thinner and reach much higher.

Within a few minutes the Condor is in the thick of things. Benko, careful not to harass the whales, lets them come to him.

Whales half the size of the boat cruise beside it on either side. Jaws are dropping and cameras are clicking away.

“I love the whales,” say Margo Adams, part of a large church group from Ventura. “They’re such gentle leviathans. Their grace is awesome.”

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A California sea lion leaps over the head of one humpback each time it surfaces, as if to also be noticed.

Benko remains with the humpbacks for an hour or so and then pulls away, having seen the slender plumes of blue whales above the white horizon. Those who haven’t succumbed to the rocking of the boat--Hart says about 7% get seasick every trip--take the time to reload their cameras and jockey for position at the bow and along the rails.

Benko tells the passengers how impressive the whales they are about to see really are:

--The blue whale’s heart is as big as a small car and its tongue is as big as an African elephant, weighing up to six tons.

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“Actually this animal is as large as a whole herd of elephants,” Benko says.

--A blue whale calf is 25 to 30 feet long at birth, can gain as much as 300 pounds a day and grow to 55 feet within six months. This is partly because the blue whale’s mother’s milk is more than 50% fat, compared to the less than 10% fat found in human milk.

--The air expelled from the blue whale’s blow hole is coming out at about 300 m.p.h. And the holes, Benko says, “are easily big enough for any one of us on the boat to slip down inside.”

Armed with this knowledge, the passengers finally get a first-hand look. Several blue whales are spouting a few hundred yards away. Others are feeding on the krill on the surface.

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One whale breaches off the starboard bow, its sleek blue body in clear view.

It breaches again, as if for an encore. Another surfaces about a dozen feet away and rolls over on its side, showing off a long, white pectoral fin.

Then, as if they have grown bored with the Condor and its shutterbugs, the whales move on.

Stephanie Le Chat, who still can’t believe her eyes, watches them until they disappear. It is as she said. There is no beauty quite like that of the sea.

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