A Little North but Far Out

There are still whales to be watched. In fact, as nice as it is to just toodle down to Long Beach or Redondo Beach to take a three-hour whale-watching cruise in the winter and early spring, the big boys are only a 2 hour drive north this summer off Santa Barbara.

Last Saturday I got up early and headed up to Santa Barbara to Condor Cruises for a full-day Humpback Whale Excursion to benefit to Amercian Cetacean Society. Binoculars and camera memory tucked neatly in my bag and beautiful weather on tap, I was looking forward to what one of the other passengers called “a National Geographic Special day.” We were there to see Humpback Whales, which feed in the Santa Barbara Channel each summer, but there were hopes that we’d also run across other whales like Orcas or Blues.

Continue reading for a comprehensive account of the journey and more photos.

click on all photos for giganto pop-up versions

First, there were birds. I can check a lot of birds off my list. Well, if I kept an actual list. Someday the list in my head will be too long that I’ll have to start writing them down. While in the dock we spotted a Black-crowned Night Heron. Just outside the dock we saw Caspian Terns, Brown Pelicans and Cormorants. Shortly after that, as we entered the channel and headed for San Miguel Island, a keen-eyed naturalist spotted a Sunfish (mola mola) lounging at the surface. These strange fish sit just below the surface horizontally and often raise their flippers out of the water. The one we spotted was about three feet across, but they are commonly seen at 6 feet long and have been recorded as large as 11 feet!

Sure enough, about an hour off of Santa Barbara and a large pod of feeding dolphins was spotted. We headed toward them and they excitedly approached our double hulled boat and bow rode with us (allowing me to snap a couple hundred photos). We enjoyed their company as some swam with us and others fished (we could even hear their vocalizations). There were plenty of little ones with them as well, including one that was spotted several times that was probably not more than a week old. After twenty minutes of play we headed off towards the far end of San Miguel Island in search of larger cetaceans.

Along the way we spotted more birds, including Phalaropes, which are little birds that spin around on the suface of the water over plankton to create little whirlpools so that they can pick them out and eat them. They’re supposed to be a very good sign for finding other plankton-feeders like Blue Whales.

the small whale as he fluked and went down for a deeper dive

At two hours into the journey we had our first report of a whale sighting a little east of us by a nature photographer. So we headed over and found our two humpback whales for the day. There was one larger one, probably about 45 feet long with a very broad back and a notch out of the tip of his dorsal fin and a slightly smaller one with a narrower back and a scar just aft of its blowhole, probably from an entanglement with fishing line or nets some years ago.

They were traveling at a leisurely pace of 3 knots for most of the time we were there, the smaller guy swimming just at the surface and breathing more often than the notched one, which would dive about every fourth breath. We followed them for about two hours, and on several ocassions they were curious enough about the boat to come very close, and the small one found strands of kelp at the surface and stopped to roll around with them three times. This allowed us to get a great look at him, as he’d raise his chin out of the water, as well as his flippers.

As they were pretty much aiming for the coastal waters of Santa Barbara, so as we spotted a pod of common dolphins off to the north from them, we broke off from our traveling companions and spent some more time dolphin watching. Again it was a pod of long-beaked common dolphins with a cohort of sea birds enjoying the feeding frenzy. This bunch of dolphins seemed much more interested in their food, but again they enjoyed surfing in our wake. I ran out of memory in my digicamera at this point … sigh.

The day was still young, barely 1PM, when we headed back to Santa Cruz Island to skirt along the coast and see the birds (Pigeon Guillemot, Black Oystercatcher, California Gull) and pinnipeds (California Sea Lion, Harbor Seal). We also got a look at the triple arches of the island and the Painted Cave (the largest known sea cave in the world).

We turned back out into the channel – the wind had picked up and those of us on the top deck of the boat had to cluster over to the port side to avoid being drenched by the swells. But that only lasted about three miles and soon the waters were smooth and calm again and we skirted by coast north of Santa Barbara and happened upon five Bottlenose Dolphins that were very curious about us and wanted to swim along with us for a mile or so.

So, for those who would be interested in an experience like this, there are a few more opportunities this year. First, Condor Cruises runs half-day cruises througout the summer to see both Humpbacks and soon Blue Whales. They’re boat is very nice, with full galley, indoor space with broad windows and a great top deck and bow area for getting up close. This is no converted fishing boat, this boat is meant for going out on the water to view wildlife.

For those of you interested in a more indepth naturalist cruise with the American Cetacean Society, their next trip is Saturday, July 30th with a goal of seeing Blue Whales. The naturalists that go along with this trip include the experts in the field of birds, pinnipeds and of course whales and dolphins. They even give you breakfast and there are raffles!

As a side note, some folks have asked me about the photos I’ve been taking. I’m using a Sony DSC-V1 digital camera. It’s 5 megapixels and has a 4X optical zoom, I shoot in jpeg mode to maximize my memory (500 megs). I now carry two batteries and enough memory for about 400 photos and it’s not enough. It’s a good camera, not great, but it gets to job done.

One thought on “A Little North but Far Out”

  1. Awesome photos! And, a terrific account of a fascinating day. I haven’t been out whale-watching since I was a kid, but now I’m dying to go.

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