Hugh's avatar

Whale Watching | Mammals

Thursday, October 07, 2010


With the excitement of Blue Whales in our local waters I thought it would be nice to give folks an idea of what other cetacean that can potentially be seen in Southern California. This week I am sharing my life list of whales and dolphins that I have encountered from San Diego to the Channel Islands.

The following is not an all-inclusive list of the whales and dolphins of the Southern California Coast. Instead it is a list and short personal observations of the cetaceans (plus one shark) that I have been fortunate enough to encounter in my 20 years of volunteering my time researching, rescuing, rehabilitating, and also recreationally viewing the marine mammals of our local waters.

BLUE WHALE: My favorite moment with the largest animal on earth was strangely enough watching one poop. It was fascinating to see the reddish leftovers of the krill that the whale was feasting on.

GRAY WHALE: To me the most rugged looking of the Great Whales. I guess you have to be when you make your living in Alaskan waters. As the TV show states…It’s Tougher in Alaska! No wonder they make their way to Baja to have their calves. They’ve earned their warm water lagoon vacation.

HUMPBACK WHALE: The most acrobatic of the Great Whales. I’ve watched humpbacks do spins and leaps off our coast that even the Aquarium’s most acrobatic sea lions would be in awe of.

FIN WHALE: I once spent four hours in the surf with a stranded fin whale calf during a rescue. Its most striking characteristic even at this young age was the asymmetrical coloring of its lower jaw. One side was gray while the other was white.

SPERM WHALE: The most awesome of the Great Whales. Many years ago I had a few encounters along the Redondo Submarine Canyon off Palos Verdes with a bull sperm whale dubbed “Double Scoop” by local researchers. The most memorable was the first when this massive muscular male whale broke the water within twenty yards of the boat I was in, right where I was looking at the time. It brought its large eyes above the surface. I found myself momentarily staring at a huge powerfully built whale that was staring right back at me. I had a mixture of fear and fascination running through me at that moment. He was bigger than the boat and he knew it! I can see why this creature inspired the book Moby Dick. These critters are almost mystical up close.

MINKE WHALES: There is an old saying about Minke whales that you don’t have to see them to know they’re there. You can smell them! They have the nickname of “Stinky Minky” for a reason…a terrible case of bad breath. When they blow nearby you can’t help but notice the odor of rotting fish.

KILLER WHALES: I’ve seen orcas in Southern California several times over the years and they are quite impressive to watch. However I think the most fascinating thing about them is how they affect the behaviors of other animals when they are in the area. I’ve seen gray whales with calf seemingly hide out in a small cove along the coast when killer whales are around and skippers have told me about frightened sea lions jumping onto fully loaded sport-fishing boats trying to get away from these top level predators.

PILOT WHALES: At one time these large black bulbous headed critters were quite numerous in the San Pedro Channel. Then in the late 80s they seemed to disappear from local waters. Coincidentally an animal that was once seldom seen off Los Angeles started to show up regularly around the same time, the Rissos dolphin. I don’t know the reasons why the pilot whales left but they do share the same prey items with the aggressive Rissos.

FALSE KILLER WHALE: The false killer whale sort of looks like a skinny pilot whale from a distance. In fact the first time I recorded one off the Palos Verdes Peninsula during a whale research spotting shift a few years back I commented that they were either anorexic pilot whales or Pseudorcas.

PYGMY SPERM WHALE: Although the Kogia breviceps (PSW) shares a lot of characteristics with its big namesake, for example a single angled blowhole and spermaceti organ, to me it kind of looked like an animal trying to masquerade as a Great White. The stranded animal that I helped rescue from a beach in Orange County had coloration that mimics the gills and lines of a shark. I’ve never seen one in open water but I’ve handled two or three stranded animals over the years so they’re out there.

STEJNEGER’S BEAKED WHALE: I once spent a few hours in a stabilization pool with a Zuma Beach stranded juvenile Stejneger’s Beaked Whale. When I held the mouth of the animal open so it could be tube fed I noticed it had a grooved palette in its upper jaw. It also had three throat grooves which is unusual for a toothed whale. I think the two characteristics are related but I’m not positive.

CUVIER BEAKED WHALE: I’ve only seen this whale from the air during an informal aerial cetacean survey off Catalina Island. Three of them were logging off Avalon. What was striking to me was that these were the only “brown” whales that I’ve ever seen. When I first saw them I thought to myself what are walruses doing down here? That’s how brown they appeared in the sun. I really had to take a careful look through my binoculars to confirm that they were indeed Cuviers.

BRYDES WHALE: The three ridge line running along the top of the Brydes whale’s head from snout to blowholes is what distinguishes this rare visitor to local waters from other baleen whales. I’ve only seen this whale once from a cliff top observation station just a couple of years ago.

LONG BEAKED AND SHORT BEAKED COMMON DOLPHIN: These are the black and white dolphins that can be seen in schools of thousands porpoising in the Channel. I remember a young common dolphin that I helped rescue over fifteen years ago from a landing not far from where the Aquarium of the Pacific is today. For an animal that made such athletic leaps from the water the three year old female I was handling that day seemed very delicate to the touch.

BOTTLENOSE DOLPHIN: These animals can be seen both offshore in large schools or inshore in smaller pods just off the surfline. However unlike the majority of the “show” dolphins, our California bottlenoses are much larger than their Atlantic cousin. To borrow a basketball analogy, East Coast bottlenose dolphins are like Kobe with their acrobatic ballet-like moves while our West Coast critters are more like LeBron, big and powerful with little need of subtle movement.

PACIFIC WHITESIDED DOLPHIN: These are some of my favorite dolphins. Looking like snub nosed common dolphins with their white striped patterns, they can easily be distinguished by their crescent shaped dorsal fin and short rounded snout. I found that they are not as showy as common dolphins but when they do leap out of the water they can get pretty high with a pretty long hang time. Quite awesome to witness.

RISSOS DOLPHIN: As I mentioned before when these dolphins showed up in the area the pilot whales, which shared the same prey of deep water squid and fish, suspiciously vanished from the Channel. The battle scars on their bodies gives one the impression that their coloration is white when they are actually gray. Any animal with that many scars must be one pretty mean critter to compete against.

NORTHERN RIGHT WHALE DOLPHIN: The only finless dolphin off our coast, these sleek animals are quite active when they are hunting. I watched one continuously pillar out of the water to slam its bellies on the surface, perhaps to corral prey fish.

DALLS PORPOISE: The only true porpoise that I’ve seen along the Southern California coast. They put up quite a rooster tail of foam when they are swimming fast near the surface just like a speed boat.

BASKING SHARK: Not many people know that the world’s second biggest shark occurs right off our coast. The one that I saw many years ago I first mistook for a whale. Then I noticed the vertical caudal fin along with the shark-like dorsal fin and snout. It was an impressive sight to watch as this huge fish swam up the Channel between Catalina Island and the cliffs of Palos Verdes.

There are other fascinating creatures that I’ve seen off our coast like the Great White Shark, Mako Shark, Mola Mola or Ocean Sunfish, and even the occasional sea turtle. Just remember the next time that you’re out on a whale watching boat that you can never know just what might show up so keep your eyes open!

A Blue whale leaves behind a poop print off the coast of Long Beach.  | Hugh Ryono

<< Back

Your Comments

Have Something to Say? Leave a Comment!

All blogs and comments represent the views of the individual authors and not necessarily those of the Aquarium.

<< Back