In May marine mammals are reproducing and/or still migrating. Some have already given birth but are still heading north towards summer feeding grounds. May is typically a time of upwelling nutrients along the California Coast and this feeds the food chain creating dense schools of small fishes, squid, and krill that attract migrating gray, humpback and blue whales.
Whales You can See in May
Thanks to two Bay Net volunteers, Patrick Wilkinson and Bob Palero, who hang at Lighthouse Point most afternoons, I have a great report of the whales that have been going by Lighthouse Point in Santa Cruz for the past few weeks. They are currently seeing gray whales almost every day and humpback whales fairly often. In both cases they see mothers with calves. The grays are in close, just beyond the kelp forest, while the humpbacks are usually farther out, sometimes over a mile. The Humpbacks however are often breaching, so they put on a better show. Patrick and Bob keep a yearly count of whales seen from Steamer Lane and since January 1, 2015 Patrick has seen 84 and Bob seen has over a hundred whales.
The Gray Whale migration should be winding down soon, but can stay into early June. The Humpbacks will be here all summer and for the last three years, they have put on a great show just off the Wharf in fall. From the Santa Cruz Wharf, you are only likely to see humpbacks and grays. Patrick, who has logged thousands of hours at Lighthouse Point, says “I’ve never talked to anyone who’s seen a blue from shore and very rarely have I talked to anyone who’s seen orcas.”
In the greater Monterey Bay, Monterey Bay Whale Watch is reporting primarily humpbacks with a few grays and a few groups of killer whales.
Know Your Whales
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.
Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are a common sight from the Wharf from about mid-February to late May. You stand a good chance of seeing them just about every day, often close to shore, just beyond the kelp forest — close enough that you can see the growth of whitish barnacles and pink “whale lice” on their skin – even without binoculars.
Big as a School Bus
A full grown gray whale can be 45 feet long and weigh 40 tons but, even so, are often surprisingly hard to see. They are a mottled gray, with white patches of barnacles over their bulky body and a narrow, V-shaped head. The shape of the spouts gives you the first clue grays are around. The water tends to make a heart-shape: different from the more straight-up spout of blues and humpbacks.
You usually get a quick couple of spouts, a roll of the back, and then they’re down for 5 or 6 minutes or more. Just long enough for you to get bored and look away. Occasionally, individuals or small pods will linger off the Wharf for awhile.
Mud, Migration and Mating
Grays feed in a very unusual way. They dive to the bottom, lay on their sides and scoop up great gobs of mud which they filter through their baleen. The bristles of the baleen trap inch-long, fat-rich amphipods that get whisked down their throats using their huge tongue. Grays spend the summer in the Bering Sea or the Chukchi Sea, between Russia and Alaska feeding on the food rich muds.
Starting in November they are off on their 11,000-mile trip to the bays and lagoons of Baja California for the calving and mating season, and then back to the Arctic by June. This is thought to be the longest mammal migration on earth. But check out the sooty shearwater page for an amazingly long bird migration story.
During summer and fall, blue whales are often found along the entire coastline of California. They are searching for their prey — large swarms of phytoplankton (krill). They especially like the Monterey Bay as it often has great swarms of krill. Blue whales were significantly depleted by commercial whaling. They are still considered an endangered species.
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. Like blue whales, they are still an endangered species.
Minke whales are common in the nearshore waters of the Sanctuary. They usually travel alone, don’t jump up and create a show, and are easily overlooked. They can be seen year-round, but less commonly in winter.
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.
Many thanks to Patrick and Bob for all their great volunteer work. They are out at Lighthouse Point most afternoons, wear red Bay Net jackets, and have logged hundreds of hours explaining the wonders of Monterey Bay to curious locals and visitors alike.
Take the Self-Guided Mobile Tour
This piece is part of the Marine Life Guide. Download the free app with many tours of the Santa Cruz area and beyond.
- 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
- Seasons in the Sea. Kim Fulton-Bennet.