A Day with the Whales: Moss Landing

Moss Landing Harbor

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Five whales hunting together.

I love whales. Why? I find them fascinating. The Humpbacks alone are so interesting. They are intelligent and majestic, they live in pods or family groups most of the time and they take care of one another and the males sing intricate songs to their lady-whales.  They swim together in patterns to squeeze their food (for instance anchovies) into a tight “ball” andthen come up from below to swallow as many as possible.  Sometimes they even release bubbles in a pattern called a “bubble net” to “trap” and confuse their prey.  They are social creatures and unlike some whales, they seem to really enjoy getting out of the water more often by breaching or just cruizing at the surface to check out what’s going on.

Elderwhale

My first memory concerning whales was when I was about 6 years old.  My first grade class had a project where we collected change to go towards “Saving the Whales” and there probably was a class discussion related to whales that I don’t remember now.  What I do remember is that the class got to vote on naming a whale and of the 2-3 options, one of them was my middle name.  I wanted the class whale to be my middle name SO badly.  I vividly remember getting my turn to go to the board and put a “vote” down in chalk under the whale that had my name.  Just as vividly, I remember feeling so excited when “my” whale name was chosen, Crystal the Whale.

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The Whales still need saving though they are doing better.  Prior to 1966 they were hunted down to just about 10% of their population. They were placed on the endangered species list to be protected from fishing and their numbers are starting to rebound.  There are an estimated 20,000 -30,000, or an increase of 20%.  The whales have a ways to go still to be safely back up to stable numbers but it is good to see what protecting a species can do. Maybe the change I gave up in the first grade helped a little..or at least I like to think so.

Nothing but Fluke – Version 2

I still have the book about that whale and have kept a fondness in my soul for whales ever since.  So now, over 3 decades later, I live near enough to Monterey Bay to get to go out whale watching at least once a year, sometimes twice (in the same month)! I’m thrilled and amazed every single time, even if few whales are seen.  Being on the water invigorates me and after going on 6 whale watching tours I’m getting pretty good at taking photos.   Getting a good photo of a whale isn’t always easy. It takes a lot of bad photos and learning how to take a photo of a moving object while ON a moving object.  Fast shutter speeds and burst mode (with a large memory card) are a must. Camera lens cleaning supplies are also helpful because whale breath leaves a streak on the lens, and the salt water spray from the boat also can scratch a lens without proper cleaning supplies.  I’m not sure what the average photographer takes when out on the boat but I can easily say that I take around 300 photos per trip and come away with 40-50 decent shots.

Whale's looking at you kid
You can see this guy’s eye!

So why is it called a Humpback whale? Well maybe because the proper name, Megaptera novaeangliae, is really hard to pronounce.  I’m no expert but I do think part of the reason for them being called “Humpback” is because they are decidedly “hump-backed” when diving down to look for more food.

Double Humps

Did you know that a Humpback Whale can choke on a softball?  Their throats are narrow because their main source of food like krill and anchovies are small. It is amazing to me that a creature that weighs around 40 tons and is slightly longer than a standard school bus maintains its weight by eating such relatively tiny sea creatures. I guess since they eat up to 1 ton of food each day they can keep their weight up.

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Humpbacks can stay underwater anywhere from 5-20 minutes depending on how deep they’re going to get a mouthful.  But since they are mammals, they must resurface to breathe. Humpback whales belong in the baleen family because instead of having teeth, they have very stiff, hair-like baleen where teeth would normally be. As they swallow large gulps of water and food, they then use their tongues to push out the water but trapping the food in the baleen.  It never occurred to me that whales had tongues….so when I got these photos I was super excited to see whale tongues!

One Tongue – Version 2

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THREE TONGUES! (and all the little anchovies trying to get away)

So the above shot is my best, most awesome one (for obvious reasons) but I have to say I just got plain lucky to have gotten it.  I’m pretty sure the camera was not even at my face when I took this one.  I heard a gasp to my right and turned and just began taking photos.  That nobody was in my way, that I focused on the right spot…all luck.  This photo is hanging on my wall (and if you want a print of any of my shots I will sell them for 15$ for smaller than 8×10 and $25 for larger).

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Whale hello there! Partial breach of a Humpback whale

Questions I have heard asked on various tours:

What happens when a whale accidentally swallows a small bird?  The bird dies as it passes undigested through the whale’s system and is…excreted with hardly a feather out of place.  Whales can’t digest food that isn’t part of their normal diet.

Playing Badmitton
Whale about to slap a bird? Maybe! Does that make it badminton?

How fatty is mother whales milk? If a cow’s milk is 2% milk fat then the Humpback must excrete clotted cream….their milk fat is a whopping 50%! Humpback whales are what we saw a lot of this last trip, they were in the Bay for feeding before making their way south to give birth and nurse their calves. A baby Humpback whale will eat 100 pounds of milk each day.

Fluke #5 Black and White

Do whales ever injure the kayakers?  Yes. Even a light “tap” by a fin or fluke could be deadly simply because they are so massive.  The kayakers get a great view though! I may have peed my pants had I been in the red kayak. Ok let’s be honest…any of the kayaks.

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Did you know that a whale’s fluke is unique enough, like a fingerprint, to identify the whale? I know that I can recognize several whales from different trips based on their fluke’s scars and notches.

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Doing some tail-slapping

I take photos of more things than the whales, although not many.

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Sea Otter snacking on a mussel
Sinking on a Dock on the Bay
Sea Lions sinking on a dock on the bay.

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And sometimes, just sometimes, somebody takes a picture of me:

German TV Star ;)

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I’m bundled up to keep warm but I ALWAYS have a good time on the water!

Sources:

  1. http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/wild-kingdom/about-animals/humpback-humpback-facts
  2. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/h/humpback-whale/

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