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Whale Watching Around The World Part 5

Updated on February 25, 2010

From May through November, these two species wander between Monterey Bay and the Farallon Islands, several stony outcroppings located about 20 miles west of San Francisco. The Farallones form the heart of Monterey's sister refuge, Farallon Islands National Marine Sanctuary. For all practical purposes, the two contiguous sanctuaries form a single reserve. Whale-watching tours depart San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf for the Farallones, but check with the tour operators before deciding whether to leave from Monterey or San Francisco if blues and finbacks are your quarry. The whales will be found where the forage is thickest, and the whale-watching boats follow the krill just as reliably as the whales.

Social Life

Humpbacks may be seen in groups, although they are often spotted as pairs or solitaries. They employ more aggressive and sophisticated feeding strategies than the phlegmatic blues and finbacks; humpbacks have been observed working cooperatively to corral small fish in bubble-nets. Sanctuary visitors also sometimes see humpbacks lunge-feeding, a behavior that's stimulated when large schools of bait fish congregate close to the surface.

While blues, finbacks and humpbacks are often spotted by Monterey's whale-watching fleet, they play second fiddle in some ways to gray whales. Several hundred blue, finback and humpback whales may frequent Monterey waters in a good year, but some 22,000 gray whales pass through annually on their seasonal migrations between the waters of Alaska and Baja California. The greatest numbers are seen during their southward journey in December and January. The whales, often traveling in large groups, range about five miles offshore at this time.

The Fearsome Orca

Whale fans get a second chance at the grays throughout the spring as the whales head back to Alaska. It is at this time when orcas are most likely to enter into the equation. Grays tend to travel in smaller groups on the way north; many of the bulls swim alone, and the cows typically travel with just their calves. They also often stay closer to shore at this time, sometimes traveling within the kelp beds a couple of hundred yards from shore. This may protect them from the predatory orca. The seaweed provides cover for grays, and orcas apparently are loath to enter the kelp forests.

While orcas sometimes prey on blue whales and finbacks, they usually stay clear of humpbacks. These whales are far more aggressive than their larger kindred, and are quite adroit at buffeting inquisitive orcas with their powerful flukes and oversized pectoral fins.

An impressive variety of smaller cetaceans also lives in the sanctuary year-round. Several are likely to be seen on any trip. Dall's porpoises, which look like small orcas, often shadow the boats. Common longbeak dolphins and Pacific white-sided dolphins travel in gigantic schools sometimes comprised of thousands of animals. One of the sanctuary's most memorable sights is a large congregation of these animals porpoising joyously through the air, their excitement palpable and contagious. Other commonly seen dolphins include Risso's dolphins, Pacific bottlenose dolphins, and harbor porpoises. Two small whales, the minke and pilot, also frequent these waters, but sightings are apt to be a fleeting glimpse of a spout and a glistening patch of black skin.

Continued In Whale Watching Around The World Part 6

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