Marine mammal enthusiasts getting a show from blue whales


Unusually large numbers of blue whales dining off the Southern California coast are providing marine mammal enthusiasts a rare opportunity to see Earth’s largest creatures lolling in the waves and spouting misty plumes.

On Thursday, 77 amateur whale watchers on an excursion boat operated by the Aquarium of the Pacific and Harbor Breeze Cruises in Long Beach spotted six blue whales and two fin whales in less than three hours.

“Dead ahead!” a woman yelled as a massive blue whale emerged under a spout 15 feet high and then arced slowly back into the water. “Wow. Wow. Wow.”

It is not uncommon for blue whales to pass through the San Pedro Channel. But this large a congregation of the cetaceans — averaging 80 feet and between 150,000 and 300,000 pounds — has not been seen in recent years.

By the 1960s, blue whales had been hunted nearly to extinction. An international agreement outlawed blue whale hunting in 1965. Today, an estimated 2,000 blue whales of an overall world population of 10,000 feed off California each summer.

“A year ago, we were lucky to see three or four blue whales per trip,” said Michele Sousa, senior mammal biologist at the Aquarium of the Pacific. “Now we’re seeing up to 15 per trip, along with a few fin whales thrown in for good measure.”

Sousa believes the whales are following vast clouds of krill — tiny, shrimplike crustaceans that are a mainstay of their diet — into relatively shallow waters just a few miles offshore.

Blue whales need about 1.5 million calories a day to satisfy their energy requirements. To maintain their weight, they lunge at dense concentrations of krill, taking in as much as 15,000 gallons of food and water in a single mouthful.

Erin Falcone, a biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective, a nonprofit based in Olympia, Wash., suggested that the blue whales may be re-colonizing historic haunts.

“There are no easy answers as to why blue whales are showing up like this,” Falcone said. “But it may be that in addition to optimal feeding conditions, as the population of blue whales grows, they are staying longer in areas where they were once common.”

Today, some of those areas include major shipping lanes. “We have launched several studies aimed at better understanding how whales behave in areas with high ship traffic,” Falcone said, “and how ships can be regulated to behave in the presence of whales.”

In 2007, postmortems conducted on a blue whale found in the Santa Barbara Channel and one in Long Beach concluded that the creatures were victims of ship collisions.

The increase in blue whale sightings has been a boon for charter boat businesses.

“We spotted our first blue whale in 2004,” said Dan Salas, captain of Harbor Breeze Cruises’ 65-foot vessel, Christopher. “Now, it’s crazy how many blue whales are out there. One day last week, we had 30 blues circling our boat.”

On Thursday, each time a white geyser was spotted on the horizon, the Christopher churned full throttle in that direction. As it approached, Salas cut the engine and passengers clicked away with their cameras.

When a blue whale burst into view only a few hundred yards off the bow, Randy Kirk, 58, of Manhattan Beach, grinned.

“It’s inspiring to see the biggest living things on Earth enjoying the waves not far from where I walk my dog each morning,” he said, shaking his head. “From now on, I’ll look out at the sea and know these magnificent intelligent creatures are out there — so close to home.”