conservation ftw

California Whale Watching: Gray whales, dolphins and sea lions

Whale watching, J and J on ship

Last Thursday, J and I went whale watching off the coast, past Point Loma. It’s migration season for gray whales, coming up from Baja California and going back to Alaska and that region for the summer months. I’ve never seen gray whales, plus it was a chance to take a boat ride through the harbor coming and going.

Whale watching, sea lions on buoy

The ship started from the pier beside the USS Midway, then took us out past NAS North Island (Coronado) and we got to see the gorgeous houses along Point Loma, plus the sea lions hanging out on buoys.

Heading out, I saw a small whale come up for a breath, and one of the Natural History Museum volunteers on board told me it was most likely a minke whale, which is one of the smallest types of whales and one I’ve never seen before. I didn’t get a photo, it was too fast, but still a very neat sighting.

Whale watching, dolphin pod

Next, as we were still heading out to sea, we saw a series of splashes. Before long, we could tell they were dolphins. As we got closer, the sheer number of them became apparent: a pod of over a THOUSAND individuals was intersecting the ship’s path! They went around and under it, and kept on going. The guy on the PA said that such pods aren’t uncommon. Wow!

They swam so fast it was hard to catch photos of them, but they kept leaping out of the water, swimming back and forth, and flicking their tails to make splashes.

Whale Watching, gray whale blow

Finally we got out to deep water where the gray whales migrate. Before long, we spotted some blows ahead, and approached close enough to see: a group of three or four gray whales.

Whale watching, gray whale faces

They weren’t in a usual migration grouping, though, but appeared to be in a mating cycle, which is unusual for this area.

Whale watching, gray whale fin

The whales hung out at the surface, swimming along on their sides or backs, with their fins above water. We could easily see their light gray skin under the water, reflecting almost white on their stomachs when they turned. It was fascinating.

Whale Watching birds and sea lions

After a while, we had to head back to shore. Along the way we passed more sea lions and a whole lot of birds (including herons!) hanging out on the docks where fishermen trap bait fish.

Whale Watching San Diego skyline

Just as we got back into the harbor, the sun cleared the clouds and we got a beautiful view of downtown San Diego.

Whale Watching J and J

This is definitely something I’d do again; even though the gray whales will be gone in another month, apparently this summer there will be blue whales in the area, and I don’t want to miss that!

Also, a few more photos are here.

conservation ftw, joanna irl

My first whale of the season

And I didn’t get a photo.

It came with a big splash, though– literally! I took a couple of my friend’s kids whale spotting and the only thing we saw was a single, full breach with a massive splash afterward. Very cool.

The day was gorgeous, though, and I’m surprised we didn’t see more.

Tomorrow I’m going to try and post a recap of 2011 and maybe Christmas, though my holiday was a little, well, weird. So there you go.

Hope you all enjoy the end of this year! I know I’m ready for a new one.

conservation ftw, joanna irl

The Tail-end of Whale Season

While my company was here visiting, we were out at the beach whale watching and noticed a whale breaching repeatedly. This happens sometimes, and if you sit there long enough there’s a decent chance you’ll see a breach. What we didn’t expect was this:

The colloquial name for this is a “heat run,” though it doesn’t really describe what’s happening. What you’re seeing is a group of male humpback whales competing for a female. I know it’s not a great photos, but check out this article and video from Discovery about it. That video takes place near Tonga, which is another of the Polynesian islands, but we get all the north Pacific humpbacks here and they do, too. If I hadn’t just watched the episode on Discovery, I doubt I’d have recognized what I was seeing… but it was very exciting. So much so that it gets its own post. ^_^

To give you an idea of distance, this is roughly what a naked-eye view from the shore is like of the whales.

I only had my little point and shoot camera with me, so I did my best to capture it… but I’m getting to the point where I think I should start saving for a better camera. You think? ~_^ So, if anyone wants to contribute…. Heheh.

conservation ftw

Whale Census

This weekend was the February Whale Count. Since we had a tsunami the weekend before, it was postponed.

My day consisted of getting up around 5am, getting ready (including packing a bag with snacks, water, sun screen, sunglasses, a hat, etc) and heading out before sunrise to the Lanai Lookout, which is a spot on the other side of Diamond Head from where I live.

The sunrise was spectacular, with light bursting from behind pink and orange clouds and the water shining like liquid gold.

And then I realized I couldn’t see a thing on the water because of the glare.

Once the sun was up enough, we (the group of about 12 whale counters at our site, that is) could see the water clearly enough to whale watch and set about keeping track of the whales and their behavior. I don’t know if you’ve ever been whale watching, but mostly what you see are tiny little poofs of mist when they come to the surface to breathe, which is about every 20 to 30 minutes.

That was basically what we saw. We had to watch the entire visible part of the ocean and write down what we saw and what time (within a 30 minute block) we saw it. I’d say we had about 4 instances of really exciting sightings, including a whale that breached a half dozen times in a row about halfway to the horizon. I couldn’t photograph it, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was amazing. Way more amazing than poofs of mist.

Our count at the end of the day? Twenty-two adults and one calf. We saw a few more than that before the count started, but the times are strictly controlled to get an accurate count, so they were not included.

The experience was interesting and very enjoyable and I’m excited about doing it again at the end of the month. I might even convince J to go out there with me this time.

joanna irl

Maui Whale Tails

On Saturday, J and I flew to Maui to go whale watching. This sounds like a little bit crazy, especially since we didn’t spend the night, but Hawaiian Air offers reasonable prices for island hopping and it would’ve been expensive to stay somewhere on Maui, as it’s got a lot of resorts and things.

Anyway, we landed in Maui around 7:45 in the morning, picked up our reserved rental car (which turned out to be a Jeep, surprise!), and headed south to Ma’alaea Harbor where our tour started. Along the way… No, actually, about five minutes away from the airport we found the only Krispy Kreme doughnut shop in the entire state, so we stopped for “second breakfast” and had a doughnut. It was wonderful. Then we headed south to Ma’alaea.

Maui is shaped somewhat like a peanut laying on its side, and the airport is in the part to the north that would be the middle and the harbor is in the south of the middle, so it only took us about 25 minutes to drive the whole width of the island there. The eastern and western halves are the big round bits and would’ve taken much longer. Turns out the western and southern part of the island don’t get much rain, either, as it was not only sunny and hot the whole time we were there, but we didn’t see too many trees or flowers or anything. That must all be on the eastern half of the island, where the black sand beaches are. We need to go back and see those.

Our boat left from the harbor around 10:30 and we just went around the bay because there were whales everywhere. I didn’t realize they came so close into the shore, but apparently they’ll come into water shallower than they are long– and since they’re the length of school buses, that’s still pretty shallow water. We saw several types of “typical” whale behavior, like diving with their tails up, slapping the water with their pectoral fins, and just hanging out along the top of the water so we could see their backs. We also saw some not quite as typical whale behavior, which was really cool– we saw a pair of males competing for a female, which involved bumping into one another and blowing bubbles. I’m sure it’s very fierce looking to the whales. We had a biologist on board who explained that the main purpose of bumping into each other and blowing bubbles and churning up sand and such is to make it so the other male can’t see anything so that the one making the distraction can scoot away with the female for a few minutes.

After we left the little “competition” group, we moved farther out into the bay and saw whales completely breaching from the water (check out that link!). It’s pretty amazing to see a whale jump completely clear of the ocean and then crash down into the water. I wasn’t able to get a photo, but it happened several times and was just amazing.

The other awesome thing about this time of year, and the main reason we went now and not this summer, is that this is breeding season for the whales, and also the time when the calves are born. We saw two whale calves in the bay, both born in the end of January or so, and both playing along the top of the water since they can’t hold their breath all that long. The photo at the top is of one of the calves. They were doing all the fun whale behavior, too, except being so small they weren’t quite as good at it. It was so amazing to be that close to them, though!

After our whale watch, we went to a place called Buzz’s Wharf that was recommended to us by the guy at the rental car place and it turned out to have very good seafood. Then we went to the Maui Ocean Center, which is one of the best aquariums we’ve seen. From there we decided just to drive along the coast for a while until it was time to head back to the airport. We saw most of the west coast of Maui (which, as I said, is the dry part) and saw some amazing rainbows and a nice sunset. Then we turned back toward the airport.

The trip back was uneventful and I slept through most of it. We got home exhausted and sore from all the walking (and standing on a moving boat) we’d done, but it was well worth it. I think the next time we go, though, we’ll head to the east coast, and the black sand beaches and rainforest. There are rainforest and waterfall tours you can take there that look fascinating. We want to see as much of Hawaii as we can while we’re here, after all.

Photos of the trip are up in my photo journal. ^_^