Sunday, May 27, 2007

Santa Barbara for Whale Watching

imageAs tired as I’ve been from work the past few weeks, I still managed to get my butt up at 4:30 AM yesterday to get to Santa Barbara for an 8 AM cast off at Condor Express. The American Cetacean Society had their first full-day Humpback Whalewatching Trip of the year.

We tried something new, kind of geotagging the adventure. The photos aren’t precisely located on this map, but I don’t suppose anyone can argue with me since they’re within about a half a mile or so. (Maybe ... I have no clue.) You can see my whole set of photos grouped by where they were shot.

Here’s a brief chronlogy of our adventure.

4:30 AM - Wake, shower and make lunch.
5:30 AM - Depart for Santa Barbara
6:10 AM - Stop for coffee in Westlake Village
7:45 AM - We boarded the Condor Express. The trip included a continental breakfast, so I had some coffee and a half of a naked bagel.
8:05 AM - Depart the dock - conditions were calm, but a very thick marine layer kept it rather dark and didn’t give us great shooting conditions.
8:35 AM - Encountered a small but active and agreeable pod of Dall’s Porpoise. They were certainly zipping around, but kept circling back and seemed to be involved in feeding (probably deeper than we could see, as we didn’t see their prey).
9:35 AM - Encountered our first two whales of the morning. They were feeding rather deep (Captain Mat made mention of bait fish at the 300 foot level). They came up and displayed flukes quite faithfully. As I was standing there watching the second cycle I caught sight of a good size pod of dolphins directly behind the boat. I called to the naturalists and they confirmed them. After a few minutes the boat was underway to intercept the dolphins about a half a mile away.
DSC011319:45 AM - We caught up with the pod of about 100-150 Pacific White Sided Dolphins. They were circling around, also in a feeding mode. White Sided are rather common dolphins, though not as common in the Santa Barbara Channel normally. However the water temperature was 54 degrees, just inside their range. The past two trips I’ve taken in the SB Channel I’ve seen Common Dolphins, so this was a treat. The sassy black and white is of course rather similar to the Dall’s Porpoise, though more muted along the sides of their bodies. After about 15 minutes with the group we were still within sight of our other pair of whales and we went back to them.
DSC0123810:40 AM - Another pair of whales, this time it was a Humpback female and a young calf. The behavior, while interesting to watch, wasn’t so much to photograph. What was remarkable was the difference in size betwen the two. The wide mother and the narrow and short calf displayed quite a bit of back, with the baby breathing three times for every two the mother did. Mom fluked a couple of times and stayed down for a while. They stayed in the same area as well, leading us to believe that she was feeding while the calf stayed closer to the surface. We watched them for nearly a half an hour before heading off to the deeper parts of the Channel in search of the large masses of whales sighted earlier in the week.
DSC0115211:30 AM - While we zipped along, The Man and I had a little lunch. I made hummus and chicken wraps on lavash bread. The seem to do really well as a picnic lunch. Some pretzels and a bit of water to wash it down.
12:10 PM - Another pair of whales, but they were really long period, down for over four minutes, so we moved along to find better “behaviors” that we could observe.
1:30 PM - Another pair, this was a mother and calf again. She had similar markings - white inside an otherwise all black fluke, but even less white (so we knew it wasn’t the same pair). We watched for a while and then moved along to tuck in close to Santa Cruz Island.
2:20 PM - Watched another whale (long diving) for a bit closer to Santa Cruz Island.
2:35 PM - We tugged along close to the shore and then had a close look at Painted Cave. There were lots of birds hanging around, including Oyster Catchers and Pigeon Guillemots.
3:10 PM - We stopped at Prisoner’s Harbor to pick up some campers. That took about 10 minutes so we were all looking sharp to see if we could spot the Bald Eagles that have colonized the island. No luck. We saw pelicans though ... yeah, quite notable.
3:20 PM - I saw something that looked like a huge dolphin off the port and called out to the naturalists. It was quite close to the boat, about 30 yards, so we swung around and I pointed out the position. By my description, Alisa determined that it was a Minke whale. I’d never seen one before. They’re known for not swimming in a straight line and sure enough, we saw it three more times but it was vexing, even doubling back once. I never got a decent look at it beyond its dorsal fin, smooth back and then it was down again. No perceivable blow. We were due back at the dock at 4 PM and we were 12 miles away, so the Captain turned us back towards the mainland.
DSC013074:10 PM - There was another pair of whales straight ahead so we stopped to watch them. Strange whales. They came up, dove with flukes, then came up pretty much in the same spot and just sat there. They’d come up, sink down a little bit, bob up and blow then sink a little, but still their back was showing. This went on for about three minutes, then they went down and we were off for home.

I was fabulously tired and about five miles from shore we finally got some sun. But at least there wasn’t much wind or waves. Good trip. Good trip. I want to do it again later this summer.

We got good looks at about 12 whales and saw about 18 total (if you count distant blows). I can tick two species off my list - Dall’s Porpoise and Minke Whale (though I wouldn’t mind getting a better view).

See all photos on Flickr in my set and of course check out The Man’s.

POSTED BY Cybele AT 3:02 pm     Whale Watching

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During November it's all about me writing a novel. Sometimes it's about whalewatching. You know, and then there's other stuff.