Monday, July 1, 2013

When the Blue Whales Arrived

Stinky the Humpback whale.
Photo by Michael Sack,

The Sanctuary, Sanctuary Cruises' vessel
Photo by Madeline Horn

Dorris tours the boat with a black piece of whale baleen - whales’ filtration system in place of teeth - used to catch krill, one-inch long pink shrimp with black bulging eyes. Whales suck mass amounts of water into their mouths and use baleen like a sieve to catch krill as they push the water out again. Dorris also carries a small specimen jar filled with krill.
“I didn’t know krill was so big. I always thought they were the size of Sea Monkeys. Do people eat krill?” I ask.
“Some places.” Dorris answers.
“When I scoop krill up, I have people eat ‘em. I dare them…Live.” she tells me.
“Why do you do it? Just for fun?” I ask.
“Yeah!” she says, smiling and nodding conspiratorially. She reminds me of my grandpa right now, who had a mischievous sense of humor. He was also a sailor.
Dorris is my mom. She is part owner and naturalist for Sanctuary Cruises Whale Watching on the Monterey Bay.
Dorris showing baleen to passengers.
Photo by Madeline Horn
The Sanctuary is a white vessel with a bright blue deck, punctuated by orange lifeboats and life rings. A silver railing rings the boat. Black and white Orcas grace the bow of the boat, painted next to the boat’s name. 
The motor is loud. The anti-sea sickness band vibrates on my wrist every thirty seconds. I can feel the motor vibrating through the deck. I am barely keeping sea sickness at bay, with two Bonine pills, aromatherapeutic oils, and ginger candies.
I’m out today because the Blue Whales have just entered the Monterey Bay. I have seen Humpbacks before, but never Blues, the largest animals on Earth.
“Do Blue Whales act the same as Humpbacks?” I ask my mom.
“Nah, Humpbacks are much more interesting. Blue Whales just come up and breathe.” she says.
Humpback lunging in front of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk
Photo by Michael Sack,

The sky is grey. Moss Landing Harbor smells like fish, sea lions, and diesel fuel. On our trip out of the harbor we pass Sea Otters, Sea Lions, Black Egrets. As we gain speed, the ocean is glassy and dark grey, aside from the white wake of the ship. We spot an orange and translucent jelly fish floating near the surface and a silvery salmon jumps clear out of the water three times.
The boat is filled with high school science students. Their teacher Jane wears bright yellow foul weather gear. Jane spots Black Footed Albatross. Their wings gracefully arc into a point. Dorris tells us over the loudspeaker that the Albatross will travel from Hawaii to California and back to feed their young. They are endangered. Dorris tells the sad story of mama Albatross unknowingly feeding plastic trash to their babies.
As we approach a colorful blob floating on the ocean’s surface Dorris asks, “Is that a balloon?! We gotta get it.” She grabs a net with a long handle and directs captain Mike to get close to the cluster of yellow and silver balloons. One of the balloons says “Congrats Grad.” The kids cheer Dorris on, yelling, “C’mon we gotta get it!”
Once she hooks the balloons and brings them to the deck a kid cheers, “Yeah! Nice!”
Dorris fishes balloons out of the Monterey Bay
Photo by Madeline Horn
Further out, it is cold, windy, the water a choppy grey. Ten miles from shore we find a trio of Humpbacks. “He breached!” yells Dorris, pointing excitedly. I look over and see a massive white splash, but I missed the Humpback’s jump out of the water. “He’s putting on a show.”
“Will he do it again?” I ask.
“Probably not. They usually only do it once.” Dorris answers.
The tops of their humped backs rise out of the water. They spray white water into the air. When they dive, their flukes point dramatically into the air, then disappear. Dorris explains that each whale has a distinctive pattern on their tail, allowing scientists to identify them.
We leave the Humpbacks in search of a Blue Whale. Dorris and Mike ask the passengers to scan the ocean for whales and to yell outs if we see one.

Sea Otter munching on a crab
Photo by Michael Sack,
After ten minutes motoring at a clip, Mike and Dorris spot a Blue Whale ahead. As we approach I squeal and exclaim, “There he is!” pointing, when I catch my first glimpse of the long back of the Blue Whale.
Blue Whales reach eighty feet in length. As we approach, first we hear the slate blue whale’s bellows-like blows. The dramatic plumes of white water last for about three seconds, as the graceful back that goes on forever slowly reveals itself. When the whale has had enough air, it dives into the water to feed on krill, lifting its twenty-foot wide fluke out of the water completely.
Once the whale enters the water, it could resurface in any direction. The boat bobs around and the crowd waits expectantly. Each time the whale resurfaces the person who spots it yells out in joy and points so everyone else can spot it quickly.

Whales have an otherworldly quality that leaves me shaken. Their massive ancient presence reminds me how little I will ever understand the world that I live in. I was raised on the Monterey Bay, yet I could not grasp the majesty of these animals until I witnessed them with my own eyes.
Our five hours at sea leaves me utterly drained. My mom drops us off on the dock. I ask her if her legs are wobbly after the trip. She brushes off the question and gets right back on the boat to lead the afternoon tour.
Boats in Moss Landing Harbor
Photo by Madeline Horn
Humpback lunge feeding
Photo by Michael Sack,

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