Blue whales make unusual early debut
The largest mammal on Earth made an unusually early appearance off the Orange County coast Sunday, surprising and delighting whale-watching experts who have never seen it here this early.
Usually, the blue whale is spotted when it's warmer, closer to May. But Dana Wharf Sportsfishing and Whale Watching reported seeing two blue whales throughout the day Sunday feeding on krill about six miles off the coast. Capt. Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safari reported seeing four blue whales on their trips Sunday and another sighting Monday morning.
Dana Wharf captain Corey Hall said that at first glance Sunday, he thought they were humpbacks.
"It ended up being blue whales; we were completely caught off-guard," he said. "We got to see them fluke, which was super awesome. Hopefully, they are staying in the area."
Seeing the whale fluke – its tail emerging from the water and reaching toward the sky – was an extra treat for spectators.
Hall said the water has stayed chilly, allowing the whales' main food source, krill, to linger on the water's surface. That abundance of food has also kept fin whales in the area for the past week.
He said it is great timing for the blue whales to show up, with the 42nd annual Dana Point Festival of Whales kicking off next weekend. The festival – held for two consecutive weekends – draws 100,000 people to enjoy family-friendly festivities that put a spotlight on the massive mammals off the coast.
Dave Anderson, owner of Capt. Dave's Dolphin and Whale Safari, said he heard that four blue whales were spotted in Monterey in mid-February, and then got word that a few showed up in Long Beach a few days ago.
"I think they may be tracking down the coast," he said. "We don't know for sure, but it's entirely possible."
The blue whale's migration patterns are much more sporadic and unpredictable than that of the gray whales, which are on their annual migration from Alaska to Baja to breed in the Sea of Cortez.
It was once big news to see just two or three blue whales off the Orange County coast each year – the majority of them would hang around in Monterey to feed. But in the mid-2000s, they started showing up in the hundreds off Orange County, creating a new market for whale- watching charters that previously relied mostly on the gray whales for their operations.
But that isn't something to get used to, said Anderson.
"People have started to get complacent with the whales, and think that they'll always be here," he said. "I'm still not settled into there being a blue whale season – I still see it as a gift. Every year, it's totally different. No one really knows what the blue whales are doing."
What is known is that about 2,000 blue whales hang out off the coast of California during summer months. Anderson said he hopes the most recent sighting means they will be here during winter as well.
"There's no reason they couldn't stay here all year 'round if they wanted to," he said. "Everything is constantly changing with the ocean and these animals."
In 2012, Capt. Dave's reported 845 blue whale sightings, with the first spotted June 6.
Hall said the blue whales are much more impressive than the grays because of their sheer size, with flukes reaching a span of 12 to 14 feet. The whales spotted Sunday were about 75feet long. Unlike gray whales, which are cruising by on their migration, blue whales will linger for a bit and eat – great for spectators enjoying the show.
For local whale-watchers, it's a perfect time for the blue whales to show up, because most gray whales have made it to their destination down in Baja, and are hanging out in warmer waters before heading back to Alaska, he said.
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