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Follow That Bird!

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Education | Whale Watching | Birds | Mammals

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Kera

One of the most common questions I get while on the boats is “How do you find the whales and dolphins? Does that Captain use radar?” Unfortunately, no. I wish it were that easy! We rely on our eyes to do the searching. There are a couple of things we look for to get us in the right direction and as I like to say, “Follow the birds!”

There are a couple of things we look for when we’re trying to find whales and dolphins. The way we know for sure we’ve spotted a whale is by looking for what’s called a blow or a spout. Because whales are marine mammals, they have to breathe air just like we do. They have a blowhole on top of their head that leads right to their lungs. It’s like if we were to take our nose off and stick it on top of our heads. It’s placed on top of the head because that allows the animals to continue to swim without having to take their whole head out of the water to breathe and they can keep their eyes under the water looking for predators. When they exhale, it creates a plume of mist that shoots up out of the water. In cartoons and drawings, a lot of times that blow is depicted as water shooting up. There is some water blown up, just as if we blew out of our mouths and there was water on our lips. Mostly it’s condensation from the hot air exiting their lungs. It’s very similar to us breathing on a very cold day and that vapor coming out as we exhale with our mouths open. It’s the same thing. We can usually spot these blows a couple of miles away. It takes a lot of practice to be able to learn to pick it up so far away, but with a little practice, you’ll know exactly what to look for and once you see it, there’s no mistaking it for anything else. It’s such a unique sight!

The other way we look for whales and dolphins is by looking for a lot of birds flying around together. When there are birds all hanging out together and going crazy, like diving into the water, and circling a whole bunch, that means they’re feeding. When there’s fish and krill at the surface for the birds to feed, that usually means there are dolphins right there feeding as well. It’s a very interesting sight. We see brown pelicans diving and expanding their large mouths to capture fish, a variety of gulls, terns, phalaropes, cormorants, and lots of other types depending on what time of year it is and which birds are migrating through. I must say, I’m getting very excited for blue whale watching. I’m starting to see phalaropes and terns flying around. They come and feed on the same krill that the blue whales eat and we only really see them in the summer. When we see those birds, we know the blue whales are near. I can’t wait!

The last thing we look for in spotting whales is what’s called a foot or fluke print. The fluke is the tail of a whale. Fluke prints are perfectly smooth parts of the water. These fluke prints are made from the fluke of the whale as it pushes through the water. After the tail thrust down through the water, a fluke print pops up. It makes a perfect trail of where the animal was traveling. Looking for fluke prints isn’t the main way we spot animals because normally by the time you’re close enough to see a fluke print, we’d have already spotted the blow a couple miles away. There have been times though where we spotted a footprint pretty close to the boat, slowed down, and a whale popped up. So we can’t always rely on seeing the blow first.

With our eyes, these three tricks to spotting whales seems to get us a lot of sightings. It’s always fun to see who will spot the whales and dolphins first…the crew or the guests! If you’re interested in joining us on our excursions, click here!

Follow That Bird!
A gull flies away with a fish in its mouth  | Kera Mathes
Follow That Bird!
A perfect example of a fluke print created by a whale's tail. We see these sometimes before we see the actual whale.  | Kera Mathes
Follow That Bird!
Here's a flock of sooty clear-waters. We see them feeding out here quite a bit as well.  | Kera Mathes

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