Wednesday, May 15, 2013
The first few weeks of May have given us the final glimpses of our Pacific gray whales and many cow/calf pairs! Since the first we have had nine sightings of gray whales, eight of which were females and young calves. We have been lucky enough to have some very special and intimate moments with the baby grays and their mothers. All in all it has been a fantastic gray whale season and our numbers are bigger than ever. Though we are not seeing many grays pass us by to head back to their feeding grounds up north at this time, we may still see some stragglers in the next few weeks.
Since we have started the official blue whale season on May 1st, we have yet to sight one here in Long Beach, but there have been some local sightings. This means that any day they could be here to show us their amazing filter feeding skills soon! As long as our water stays cool this summer, we will have a better chance of having more krill-filled waters off of our coast and more blue whale filled waters too! Two minke whales were spotted on the other side of the oil rigs on one whale watch occasion. These whales are the smallest of our local baleen whale species only reaching around 30 feet in length and are usually very skittish. Few sightings that lasted longer than a few minutes have ever been reported on our whale watches but sometimes we will get a curious individual.
The dolphin species in our area have really been taking over the show in the last few weeks. We have been seeing some incredible dolphin feeding behavior on our trips and were even able to catch some of it on our cameras. The local common dolphins have been seen frequently around massive congregations of birds feeding on small fish. Dolphins have amazing feeding behaviors including slapping the water with their flukes to stun their prey, chasing them down at up to 40mph and corralling the fish into a bait ball while they take turns lunging to feed. It is quite a sight to witness the dolphins slapping and corralling their prey as the local marine birds such as pelicans, gulls and migratory terns dive to collect the fish who are being persuaded to the surface by the small toothed whales. Dolphins are pretty opportunistic feeders and feed whenever they can on a multiple variety of bounty including small fish, squid, and crustaceans. One trip we even witnessed a few bottlenose dolphins feeding on and playing with what looked like a halibut!
If you would like to search for blue whales and playful dolphins come on out for an adventure on the water! We hope to see you soon!
Thursday, May 09, 2013
The critter that pushed the envelope in otter behavior is back in Long Beach.
Charlie the Sea Otter is famous amongst zoological institutions. He was the first sea otter trained to give a voluntary blood sample. For the past couple of years Charlie was up north in a famous research facility participating in an important research project on sea otter hearing. Now that that research is concluded he has returned to his home town of Long Beach.
Charlie the Sea Otter is one of the original animals of the Aquarium of the Pacific. If any otter could be called a professional otter it would be him. This large male otter is willing to learn almost any behavior and do that behavior precisely to criteria when asked. Of course at the end of that behavior he expects a generous compensation for that effort. He practically likes plenty of clam and shrimp as payment although an occasional king crab leg would be fine also. I’ve always joked that if you offered Charlie enough clams he would learn to do just about anything.
Long-time staff and volunteers sometimes call him “Chuck” for short. It seems appropriate. Whereas Chuck Yeager was known for pushing the envelope for test pilots; “Chuck Otter” has pushed the envelope for sea otter behaviors. If offered enough clams I’d bet you that Charlie would have learned to fly and broken the sound barrier himself if asked.
You can see Charlie at the Aquarium of the Pacific’s BP Sea Otter Exhibit sometime later this month (after he’s out of routine quarantine).
Welcome back Charlie!
Thursday, May 02, 2013
These last few weeks of April have been filled with mother and baby gray whale moments. This is the peak time of the season where we see the most cow/calf pairs heading back to Alaska since they are the last groups to leave Baja. Since the 15th we have seen 14 pairs of mother and calf grays, sometimes shy and sometimes not. Some mothers will keep their calf hidden on the opposite side of her as we watch them go by, and others will show their calves in plain sight. We have gotten a few great looks of these extremely young grays and it is so hard to believe they have to make close to a 6,000 mile journey within the first couple months of their lives! Some of our trips have even been lucky enough to see 2-3 cow calf pairs in one day of whale watching. The adult gray counts have really started to dwindle with only 14 sightings.
Blue whale season has officially started as of May 1st, so we will start venturing out to deeper waters to see if they have begun their feeding frenzy. We will often spot them filter feeding on krill patches along the contours of the underwater canyons that litter our coastline along the infamous California Bight.
Some of the highlights of these last few weeks have been many breaching whales. Recently, we have seen gray whales breaching within a few feet of the boat which is very exciting and not often seen. Fin whales have also been reported to be breaching which is extremely rare! Fin whales average at around 65 feet, and that is a lot of whale to get out of the water! We also had a couple of amazing sightings of a couple huge Northern Elephant seals. These seals are typically found in colonies on San Clemente and Santa Barbara Island, but may have been in the area foraging. Adult male elephant seals can weigh over 5,000 pounds and have been known to dive over 2,000 feet for squid! The individuals we saw looked to be a few thousand pounds and when floating at the surface looked like small whales. It is a special treat and we even have a couple of photos of one popping his head out of the water.
We also have an update on the humpback sightings from earlier this month. After comparing the barnacle positions and fluke shots of the whales, we have determined that they were two different individuals. Dolphin sightings have been phenomenal with thousands of common dolphins feeding on bait fish and proposing alongside the boat and a few bottlenose sightings as well. As you can see there is so much to see out on the water and every day is different, so come out if you feel adventurous!
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Parker is the Aquarium of the Pacific’s largest California sea lion. Standing next to him in the pinniped exhibit I am in awe how massive he’s become. This summer he should top out at about 700 pounds! And he’s still growing! Yet this favorite sea lion of mine is a mere Hobbit when compared to the largest of the Otariidae, the Steller sea lion. While up in Moss Landing a few weeks ago I got a first hand look at the difference in size between Zalophus califonianus and Eumetopias jubatus.
A gracious invitation from the Monterey Bay Aquarium to visit my favorite sea otter Gidget aka the Furball in her new surroundings had led me to spend Spring Break in the Monterey area. While exploring Moss Landing I was surprised to encounter a rather large Steller sea lion haul out on a dock surrounded by dozens of California sea lions. It was stunning for me to realize that the smaller sea lions around the Steller which at first I thought were small juveniles were actually Parker size adult males. This Steller Sea Lion was displaying Thigmotaxis behavior with its smaller cousins. Thigmotaxis is the scientific term to describe an animal’s need to be in physical contact with another animal. The staff refers to it as an animal getting “Thiggy” with another critter.
Male Steller sea lions can weigh in at close to 2500 pounds and can reach lengths of 10 feet or more. For comparison a typical full grown adult male California sea lion weighs in at about 800 pounds and reaches a length of just over 7 feet. Sadly the Steller sea lion population is in decline. The Western US stock is listed as Endangered while the rest of the population is listed as Threatened.
More prevalent in Northern waters they are rare visitors to Central and Southern California. I felt fortunate to actually encounter this one at the Moss Landing entrance to Elkhorn Slough. I once saw one at the tip of Catalina 20 years ago and helped rehab a young Steller that stranded in SoCal in the late 90s. This was only the third wild Steller Sea Lion that I’ve seen South of San Francisco and the closest I’ve ever been to an adult male.
On the same day I also saw a female Southern sea otter hanging out on a dock with a group of California sea lions. In this case the otter was not displaying Thigmotaxis behavior. She may have been using the sea lions as a deterrent to aggressive and amorous male sea otters.
As for the Furball she is doing great in her new home and is being cared for by a wonderful, well trained staff up in Monterey. I know she is in good hands.
Thursday, April 18, 2013
Whales everywhere! So far, April has been a great month for seeing multiple species of whales and dolphins, and we have had some pretty exciting trips. The blues are still being sighted periodically and we have had five sightings already this month! We have been seeing some great lunge feeding action with the blues and the fins, and fin sightings are up as well with 23! Northbound grays have also been sighted frequently, but the numbers are getting smaller since we are nearing the end of the migration. Thirty-six northbound grays have been sighted so far along with a few cow-calf pairs. These grays, from Long Beach, have a few thousand miles left before they make it to their final destination to their feeding grounds in Alaska.
We had a fantastic surprise on the 10th with a pod of 7 Bigg’s killer whales! We have been having killer whale sightings more often than prior years which make for an even more exciting whale watch. This pod consisted of one juvenile, an adult male and several adult females perusing the coast. According to Alisa Schulmen-Janiger from the California Killer Whale Project, these whales’ primary home is off the coast of Monterey California, and one of the females was identified as “Hopper”. This is only the second time she has been reported in this area, and this is the furthest south she has ever traveled to our knowledge. Killer whales are the largest of all the odontocetes, or toothed whales, and they are very talented hunters. There is a reason they are called the ‘wolves of the sea’ and will predate other whale species. Often times we spot these whales hunting off of our coast and this time there was a harbor seal at the wrong place at the wrong time.
We got yet another surprise on the 12th and the 14th with two humpback whale sightings! We have been viewing photos of the humpback to try and make an ID or see if it has been the same individual. This is the third humpback whale sighting in the last month, so maybe it is the same one we keep seeing or maybe there are several? We will keep researching and comparing photos to find out. They are always great to see because they usually spend a lot of time out of water and give an excellent show. This individual was breaching, and slapping the surface with its giant pectoral flippers and even showing its fluke. Some of the reasons humpback whales exhibit these behaviors are to attract a mate, communicate food availability, or to knock off parasites living on their skin. Though our local migrating humpbacks do not mate in our local waters, they could still be communicating to other whales that there is krill and small fish in the area to feed on.
Hundreds of common and bottlenose dolphins have also been sighted almost daily riding alongside the boat. If you would like to come out and have an amazing adventure with us out on the water and see some beautiful animals, we would like to see you!
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