Blue whales are the largest animals on earth, measuring up to 100 feet (30 m) in length. Their slow movements made them easy targets for whalers and they became dangerously close to becoming extinct. Even though the Endangered Species Act (1973) and the Marine Mammal Protect Act (1972) were established, commercial whaling wasn’t outlawed until 1986. Whales still face threats from cargo ships. These enormous vessels typically travel at 24 knots (27miles per hour), which is quite fast on the water, and too fast to avoid any whales traveling in their path. The Vehicle Speed Reduction Initiative implemented by Santa Barbara County has been successful in getting the majority of vessels to reduce their speeds to 12 knots or less. This not only reduces whale strikes but reduces emissions which help with air quality.
Blue populations have slowly been increasing and today we have the opportunity to see them thriving.
My daughter and I were very lucky a couple weeks ago when we were out sailing near Anacapa Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura, California. We met up with my friend, Matt, a former POD dive club buddy, who I’ve actually not seen since moving away from California. We got back in touch through another diving and sailing buddy, Dos Amigos. My friends rock.
Matt took us sailing for the day. It was overcast, the water was calm, and there was barely enough wind to sail so we had a little motor assistance. Such a beautiful day. Captain Matt had Avery take the helm while we were leaving the harbor. She was quite nervous but handled it very well.
We left the harbor and were now in open water. It didn’t take long before we had our first visitor, a common dolphin mama and her baby. She was getting a fun lesson in bow riding but I’m afraid we may not have been going fast enough for them because they veered off after a few minutes. Several other common dolphins joined us, some bow riding, others leaping near us. We love dolphins. They are so fun and curious.
As we approached Anacapa, we heard a call over the radio that there was a whale sighted nearby. We tacked starboard and headed toward the other boats we saw gathering ahead. We hung back, watching and waiting. Twenty minutes went by and no one saw anything. The other boats began to pull away from that location. We decided to continue sailing so we tacked a 180 and began heading closer to the Anacapa arch. Almost immediately, I saw a spout in the distance. “Woo-hoo! Straight ahead!” The whale was heading in our direction, so we slowed down and let it come to us. After a couple of breaths and finally getting a view of its back, I could be certain that we were in the company of a blue whale. OMG. This was my first blue whale ever. It was so incredible!
It continued to surface a few times, releasing its misty exhalation, and then sounded, showing off its massive fluke. We were in quiet shock and awe and then the excitement broke out. It was so amazing. We were on a 30’ sail boat near the largest animal on the planet. We were seeing only a small portion of the whale, even though we could see its enormous blowhole, the length of its back, its itty bitty dorsal fin, and the massive fluke, which compares in width to a professional soccer goal (24 feet!). The majority of its 150 tons was still underwater.
Just as we’re grasping the shear enormousness of this whale, it surfaced but we didn’t see the exhale. We did see a pectoral fin standing straight up and then realized that the whale was lunge feeding. How unbelievably cool. We could see the throat pleats as the large mouth expanded and grabbed a mouthful of krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans.
We watched it feed for about an hour. Being there on a quiet sailboat allowed the blue whale to forage undisturbed. And since the other boats had left, we had this blue whale all to ourselves. When it had had its fill, it started traveling away from the island. We hollered our goodbye’s and thank you’s for letting us be there with it. Truly a remarkable experience.
Our special time with this magnificent creature had come to an end but will forever live in our hearts and memory. And in images, of course.
I’m waiting to hear from Cascadian Research about the identity of this blue whale. Each whale dorsal fin and fluke is unique and by recording shape and any markings, scratches or scars, researchers are able to identify a whale at a later time and determine its activities and locations traveled. With blue whales, they also record the light markings along the backside for identification. As soon as I get an ID, I will share that with you.