This August we saw humpback whales, bottlenose dolphins, and marine birds while whale watching from Moss Landing on Monterey Bay, as we did last last year. Humpback whales returned this summer, as they’ve done the past three years. These humpback whales summer off Washington, Oregon, and California and winter in Mexico and Central America to calve and mate. The sea was calm, but the sky was overcast.
Drawn by news of anchovies and humpback whales, we went whale watching this week at Moss Landing, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. The 4-hour whale watching cruise was smooth. We saw a wide range of behaviors from humpback whales, while watching sea lions and sea birds feeding.
Moss Landing, shown by the red marker below, is at the mouth of the Salinas River. Evidently, sand and other sediment from the river have cut a deep canyon into the offshore shelf. This underwater canyon enables humpback whales to swim in deep water while following anchovies close to shore. Starting from the beginning of the canyon enabled our boat to reach deep water a mile or two from the dock, allowing more time for whale watching.
Humpback whales are mammals, so they breathe air. When they surface, they exhale a plume of vapor before inhaling. Here are two whales, one exhaling a plume and the one on the right curving its back to prepare to dive. The curved back of the diving whale looks like a humpback; hence the name.
We read about big waves from Hurricane Maria, but the sea was calm. Here’s a jellyfish.
Humpback whales have pectoral fins up to 15 feet long. Below a humpback is slapping the water with its pectoral fin.
The humpback on the left is spy hopping, sticking its head out of the water to look around.
This humpback is starting to dive. Notice the white underside and the barnacles on the leading edge of the tail. Sunlight enters the ocean from above, so the light-colored underside and the dark top are a form of camouflage, making the whale harder to spot.
Humpbacks and sea lions both feast on anchovies, so you frequently see them together. Two humpbacks are behind the sea lions: the diving humpback and a second one cruising between the diving whale and the sea lions.
These sea lions are porpoising — leaping out of the water like porpoises. Air has less drag than water, so porpoising is faster than swimming.
People in kayaks paddle a mile or two offshore to look at the sea life. And the sea life likes to look back at the kayakers. Two whales are approaching these kayaks. The white tail on the left is part of a whale lying on its side, with the body next to the kayaks. The black hump in the center is a diving humpback.
Sea lions also came to look at the kayakers.
Birds also eat fish. This juvenile double-crested cormorant has a lighter color than an adult. The cormorant dives from the surface for fish.; the pelican dives while flying.
Humpback whales are more active than other whales. The next three photos shot in burst mode show a humpback breaching, thrusting most of its body out of the water while spinning.
This humpback is slapping its tail against the surface of the water. See the trail of water left by the tail.
Below, three humpbacks are lunge feeding — diving, then simultaneously swimming up through a school of fish so that fewer fish can escape their jaws. The whale on the right has the (smooth) top of its head toward us. Two are on the left: the one in back has its mouth open a bit; the one in front is lower, with the bottom of its mouth toward us. The creases on the bottom of the humpback’s mouth allow the mouth to expand and take it more water and fish during its lunge. The whale then pushes the water through its baleen to sift the fish from the water.
Below two humpback are lunge feeding and have their mouths open, so that we can see the baleen of both whales. See from the side, the whale on the left is swollen with all the water taken in during its lunge. Its baleen is hanging down so trap fish as the whale gets ready to strain the fish from the water it took in. The humpback on the right still has its mouth open wide, showing the pink roof of its mouth and retracted baleen.
You don’t know when and where the whale will lunge out of the water. Birds and sea lions feed on schooling anchovies, so that’s an indicator. See all the birds around the lunging whales. A brown pelican is floating just behind the whales. The small dark birds are common murres. Notice that these lunge-feeding whales are close to the shore.
We saw more humpback whale behaviors here than we saw in Maui, where the whales are fasting during the winter calving and mating season. In the summer humpbacks are eating and more active.
Sanctuary Cruise, the whale watching company we used, did an excellent job. Our cruise was sold out, but passengers had enough space to move the side of the boat where you can see the whales. Other boats didn’t have enough space for everyone to move to one side of the boat. Second, our boat stayed out longer than advertised to see the lunge-feeding whales. We would have missed the last two photos if the boat had returned on schedule.
Finally, the captain takes pictures too, so he cares about photo opportunities, and he provided a valuable tip. He suggested using a shutter speed of 1/800 to 1/1000 of a second, and that helped. I was using a 1/400 second shutter speed with the 100-400 mm lens — okay for hand-holding on land, but on a rocking boat, more shots with the faster shutter speed were sharp. Thinking about this now, his suggestion makes sense, but I wouldn’t have figured this out on the boat.
Humpbacks were close to extinction when commercial whaling was banned in 1986. Their numbers are increasing, and we saw many more humpbacks this year than on a previous Monterey Bay whale watching trip in August 2012.
We had a great time on this whale watching cruise. The weather was wonderful: a calm, bright day. Humpbacks leap from the water more than other whales, so they’re more fun to watch. These feeding humpbacks are much more active than the fasting humpbacks we saw in Maui in winter. During the winter calving season, you see mother and calf pairs. Mothers and calves are calm, so you have a longer contact time with whales, but they don’t leap and dive much. In the summer, humpbacks are feeding, so you see lunge feeding and more breaching. The sea lions, birds, kayakers, and their interactions were interesting when whales weren’t close by.
The humpback whale’s pectoral fins can be up to 15′ long, proportionally the longest of all whales. A humpback whale can lie on the surface of the water and slap the water with its pectoral fin.
On our second whale watching cruise in Maui, we saw a whale slap the water with its pectoral fin. In the slideshow below, there are two whales, one behind the other, with the island of Lanai in the background. The sequence starts with the back whale raising its pectoral fin and ends with a splash. The elapsed time is almost a second.
The dorsal fin of the front whale is visible. The whale in back is lying on the surface behind the first whale. The whale in back raises its pectoral fin and slaps the water behind it, away from the front whale. Perhaps the front whale is a female, and the back whale is a male.
At the beginning of the sequence, the front whale is lying flat on the surface. By the end, the whale’s back is bent and the dorsal fin is raised — the whale is getting ready to dive. Here’s the tail with water streaming off, 3 seconds later.
There are some white spots at the back edge of the tail. As seen in this crop from the photo above, the white spots are barnacles, all clustered at the tip of the tail.
These whales were near our boat — the photos were taken at 100 mm, the shortest focal length on the 100-400 mm lens. An interesting feature of the Canon 100-400 mm lens is the push-pull action to change the focal length. Lenses usually have a ring that you twist. After you get accustomed to the push-pull, it’s very fast for zooming, especially useful when photographing wildlife where you make rapid adjustments or lose the shot.
There are humpback whales that commute betwen Alaska and Hawaii. Humpback whales eat fish and krill, and Alaska is where their food is. However, Alaskan waters are too cold for the calves to survive so females journey to Hawaii to calve. Males go to Hawaii to mate because the females are there. In the winter (December to April), humpback whales visit Maui to calve and mate.
Adult humpback whales range in length from 12–16 metres (39–52 ft) and weigh approximately 36,000 kilograms (79,000 lb). Hawaii has warm, blue waters, but it doesn’t have krill, so the whales live off their fat until they return to Alaska. A mother loses half her bodyweight nursing her calf. A male loses a third of his bodyweight in Hawaii.
We visited Maui in February to watch the whales. We went on whale watching cruise from Lahaina with Trilogy, a company that sails catamarans. A catamaran is more stable than a monohull boat. Trilogy limits passengers to about 40, so there’s more room to wander around the boat to see whales. We were lucky with the weather. During our cruise, it was bright, warm (80 degrees F in February!), no wind, and calm seas.
The humpback whale has a powerful, flexible tail. When diving, the humpback bends its head down and shows its dorsal fin, looking like a humpback. Hence its name.
After you see the humpback, you watch for the tail. If it’s a deep dive, you’ll see a tail. Forty minutes into our 2-hour cruise, we saw this tail with water streaming off.
Next we saw some male whales competing for the attention of a female. This is called a competition pod, where the males show off for the female and try to intimidate the other males. The female chooses her escort, at least until a bigger, stronger guy comes along. Humpback whales do not mate for life.
Here’s a whale spouting, emptying its lungs after a deep dive, with another whale looking on. The humpback has a mound on its head, and the blowhole is located behind the mound.
Humpback whales have small bumps on their heads. Being mammals, whales have hair. The bumps are hair follicles. Notice the star pattern from the sun reflecting off a follicle. The effect is more pronounced in the original photo.
The three whales in this sequence are swimming close together.
This whale had a bite taken out of its side. See pink hole on the right-hand side of the photo, above the white water. The first mate told us there’s a kind of shark that takes a bite.
Returning to harbor, we were treated with another tail. These two photos show the top and bottom of the same whale’s tail.
The white and black markings on the bottom side of the tail uniquely identify the whale.
We had a great time whale watching.
I used a Canon 40D camera and a 100 mm – 400 mm telephoto lens. The focal length of these photos ranged from 135 mm to 400 mm, so the extra reach of this telephoto helped. On an earlier whale watching cruise in Argentina, I used a 70 mm -200 mm lens, and the longer lens worked out much better. The camera has a feature to take continuous photos when the shutter button is held down. It’s great for wildlife action, and I’m slowly learning to use this feature.