Whale Watching Around The World Part 3
Whales swim past Santa Barbara from mid-February to May as they head north from Mexico to their summer feeding grounds in the North Pacific. And they come in force. More than 22,000 of these gentle, gregarious giants negotiate the 25-mile strait between Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands each year. And big as this once-endangered population is, it's still growing, by about two percent annually.
The Santa Barbara Channel constricts the whales along the mainland shore and affords close-up views of one of the most spectacular wildlife migrations on the planet. This is particularly true of northward-bound whales. Grays tend to stay farther out to sea during their autumnal southward migration, sometimes venturing windward of the Channel Islands. During the spring, the whales take three distinct routes through the Santa Barbara Channel. The outside track traverses Coal Oil Point near the Isla Vista campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. This route is about five miles offshore. The middle track is just west of several oil platforms located in the channel, about three miles from the beach. Whales seem to favor these tracks early in the season, and both are easily accessed by boats leaving daily from the Santa Barbara waterfront from late winter through early summer.
The inside track is the route favored by late-season cows escorting their calves to Alaska. Biologists think the mothers may be attempting to avoid attacks by orcas and great white sharks by keeping close to the kelp, which affords some protective cover from predators. These luxuriant forests of marine vegetation also provide a safe place for the cows to feed, rest, and suckle their young. The Hope Ranch area just north of downtown Santa Barbara is a particularly good place to observe whales lounging in the kelp. Grays sometimes can be seen from the beach here, as well as from Devereux Point near the University of California at Santa Barbara, about five miles north of Hope Ranch.
Curious Humpbacks and Big Blues
Gray whales are by no means the only whales to frequent the channel. Humpbacks and blues usually show up in force during the spring and summer months to graze on the vast shoals of krill and bait fish that congregate in the deeper water.
Humpbacks are the first to arrive, with initial sightings typically logged in March or April. They are probably the most inquisitive and active of the baleen whales, spyhopping and breaching over and over, the latter a truly marvelous spectacle for whales more than 50 feet long and in excess of 30 tons. Humpbacks are always fun to watch. Many individuals appear openly curious and are seldom alarmed by boats. A pod of feeding or playing humpbacks will often loll around a boat for an hour or more and almost seem to enjoy posing for the cameras. Geez... it's almost as if they are completely and fully sentient and understand in the most minute detail exactly what is going on even to a far greater degree than these humans... but of course not... they're just dumb animals, right? Right? Right?