Saturday, July 12, 2008: It can be argued that there is no such a thing as a bad day to out on the ocean watching whales, but some days are better than others, and Saturday was simply perfect. The water was flat calm, the sun was shining, and there was plenty to see. In fact, for most of the trip there wasn’t a ten-minute period without dolphins or sea lions in sight.
We decided to head to the Painted Cave on Santa Cruz Island first because we expected the blue whales to be to the west, and the further west you go, the more difficult it becomes to swing by the cave at the end of the trip. We hadn’t been away from the dock a half hour when we spotted the first pod of about 200 long-beaked common dolphins. Little did we know that we would see scattered pods pretty much non-stop for the next several hours. No sooner did we return to course when we spotted a pair of very cooperative minke whales. And while we were with the minkes we found the largest of the many mola mola we would see that day, one about the size of a bicycle wheel, laying on the surface of the water. Before we reached the cave, we came across a second pair of minke whales.
As we left the cave, we added another species of marine mammal to the day’s list, a harbor seal. We headed west through several more small groups of long-beaked common dolphins and found the first blue whale of the day at 10:39 a.m. It was a smaller whale and it was steadily moving east. We passed a bottling elephant seal, and after a while our small whale joined up with two other blue whales, one of them quite large, probably a female. The three whales made regular dives in the same general area, likely feeding on krill which could be seen on our depth finder. They showed their flukes several times, which blue whales don’t always do.
After about 90 minutes, we moved closer to Santa Rosa Island in search of more life. We soon found yet another pod of long-beaked common dolphins, this one almost 500 strong. Several of the dolphins were mating. We followed the dolphins for a while and they led us right back to the three blue whales we had been watching. Before they moved on, some of the dolphins interacted with the blue whales, attempting to “bow ride” their larger cousins.
After a short while we left our three blues again, this time heading east. We passed some more long-beaked common dolphins and another elephant seal and at 1 p.m. came upon a pod of about a dozen resting Risso’s dolphins. They were moving slowly in a shifting echelon formation and at times came quite close to the “Condor Express.” The water was not only calm but exceptionally clear, allowing us to observe the animals below the surface where their pale bodies glowed like turquoise torpedoes.
Fifteen minutes after leaving the Risso’s, we found some more blue whales. There was another group of three, similar to the ones we had seen earlier. It appeared to be a large female, which had an unusually long dorsal fin, with a male escort swimming closely behind and a third whale loosely associating with the pair. By now we were close to San Miguel Island in the western Santa Barbara Channel, and there were several more blue whales to the west of us. We could see the blows, some a couple of hundred yards away, many more off in the distance.
We spent close to an hour watching these magnificent animals, again seeing their flukes several times and enjoying several close approaches. At one point, one of the whales startled everyone aboard by surfacing unexpectedly about 40 yards on front of the idling boat. A short time later, one of the whales created a huge splash by exhaling as it was diving. Now it was time to head back to Santa Barbara. On the way home we passed, what else, a couple more pods of long-beaked common dolphins, and conducted out traditional raffle.
ACS/LA thanks the crew of the “Condor Express,” captains Mat and Dave and galley chef Jacques, who took great care of us, as always, and did a great job finding the animals and providing the best possible views, also as always. We also thank our naturalists who provided great narration, commentary and information. ACS/LA board member Alisa Schulman-Janiger is the director of the Gray Whale Census and Behavior Study and co-author of the killer whale catalog for California and Western Mexico; ACS/LA scientific advisor Brian Kot is a doctoral candidate at UCLA and studies feeding biomechanics in rorqual whales; and Todd McGrath is a widely recognized seabird expert.