Cover photo by Matt Walker, NRB Photography.
Whales, dolphins and porpoises are divided into two groups: toothed and baleen. Baleen whales, such as gray and humpback whales, have hundreds of comb-like plates with stiff bristles growing from the upper jaw. The baleen strains small food from huge mouthfuls of water. Famous for long, annual migrations, most baleen whales migrate to winter breeding grounds in the warm waters of low-latitudes and then move to summer feeding areas with cool water in the high-latitudes.
Within the greater Monterey Bay you are likely to see gray whales, blue whales, humpbacks and minke whales. Peak times are during spring and summer because northwest winds push the surface water offshore, replacing it with nutrient rich cold water from greater depths. This “upwelling” fuels the growth of plankton which are the basis for the Sanctuary’s rich marine food chain. The richest waters are centered along the submarine canyons that come close to shore.
Humpback whales are commonly seen in Monterey Bay: mostly during summer and fall. They dive for schools of small fish such as anchovies and sardines and can eat as much as 3,000 pounds per day. They often use a unique hunting method called “bubble net feeding.” A group of humpbacks swims in a shrinking circle blowing bubbles below a school of prey. The whales then swim quickly upward through the circle, and swallow thousands of fish in one gulp. This is called lunge feeding.
Humpbacks, when around, are often kind to whale watchers because they tend to feed in the same spot for several days and frequently perform fantastic aerial displays, such as breaching, or slapping the surface with their pectoral fins, tails, or heads. These whales are thought to winter in the coastal waters of Mexico and Central America.
In the 1970s, whale sightings were few because their populations had been depleted due to world whaling practices. Thanks to anti-whaling laws that began in the 1940s, but were really given teeth in the US and internationally in the 1970s, many species have made a strong recovery. Gray whales have been taken off the endangered species list, while the numbers of humpback and blue whales have increased. Go whales!
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- Big Fish: A Brief History of Whaling. Meghan E. Marrero. National Geographic Education Website.
- MBNMS: Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the MBNMS. NOS, NOAA, MBNMS Website/humpbacks.
- MBNMS: Whale Watching. NOS, NOAA, MBNMS Website.
- Humpback Whale. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humpback_Whale