Blue whales are congregating in local waters a little early this year, with an apparent affinity for Newport Beach.
Davey’s Locker, which runs four whale watching cruises a day out of Newport Harbor, recorded 35 sightings of blue whales on Sunday alone off Newport’s shores. That was a high point of a 10-day run in which boat captains logged at least five sightings a day of the giants, which are listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. Some were within a mile of the coast.
Jessica Roame, head of marine education for Davey’s Locker and its sister outfit Newport Landing, said this is the first time such double-digit blue whale sightings have been recorded off Newport Beach before the typical May to October season. She said blue whales typically don’t peak in the area until late May and June as they move north in search of food.
During the winter, blue whales gather in warmer waters off Mexico and Costa Rica. In the summer, they migrate primarily around the Channel Islands, Monterey Bay and the Farallon Islands, according to the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito in Northern California.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that 1,500 to 1,600 blue whales feed along the California coast. That’s the largest concentration of blue whales in the world, the Marine Mammal Center says.
At more than 85 feet long, the blue whale is the largest animal that’s ever lived and feeds exclusively on krill, a tiny, shrimp-like crustacean that the whale filters through its baleen system.
“They will do this all day long, and it’s great for us because these whales will just stick around feeding … in the same area,” Roame said.
Davey’s Locker counted 127 blue whale sightings in April.
By comparison, Dana Wharf Sportfishing & Whale Watching, which typically runs four tours a day out of Dana Point, reported 30 sightings in April, including one on Tuesday and six on Monday. Harbor Breeze Cruises, which runs two or three trips a day out of Long Beach, reported a total of seven sightings last month.
John Calambokidis, co-founder of Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Wash., said it’s not highly unusual to see blue whale activity before May and that the overall numbers aren’t high, as blue whales move widely in search of food. But Sunday’s spike off Newport was notable, he said, even if some of the same animals were counted more than once.
Though Calambokidis doesn’t know whether the whales are here to feed or are just passing through, he said the lower number of sightings reported to the north and south suggest Newport-adjacent waters might be the site of a particularly good krill buffet.
James Stewart, boat programs coordinator for Long Beach’s Aquarium of the Pacific, said the timing of the whales’ arrival isn’t unusual but the proportion might be. Stewart — who trains aquarium naturalists to join Harbor Breeze’s cruises — said blue whales can move 200 miles a day with a cruising speed of 8 to 10 mph, and without sleep as humans and other mammals know it.
In other words, they don’t stay in one place for long when they’re on the go, suggesting these whales are sticking around.
Stewart said a congregation of animals suggests a healthy environment, and research shows blue whales have good memories for productive feeding spots.
“It’s a positive sign that we see quite a few animals of certain groups,” he said.