Readers’ wildlife photos (with moar biology)

September 6, 2014 • 4:38 am

Whales—our first cetacean! Reader Bruce Lyon [JAC note: I originally misattributed these photos to another reader; my apologies] sent these photographs on September 4, with lots of information:

I am sending some Humpback whale photos. Most where taken yesterday but a couple are from a from a month ago. I also include a link to a video that shows something I was not able to get photos of—lunge feeding. The video is also interesting because it shows two divers almost becoming inadvertent dinner for the whales.

Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have been very active this year in Monterey Bay California. What is particularly unusual is that they have been coming very close to shore—people on shore have been able to see eye to eye with whales. They even came into the mouth of Moss Landing Harbor. The whales are feeding anchovies this year, and it seems like weather/marine conditions are pushing the anchovies up close to shore, and the whale are simply following the food. Because the whale activity seems unusually good this year I have taken three whale watching boat trips out of Moss Landing Harbor, half way between Santa Cruz and Monterey. I took a tour on Tuesday and the whales did not disappoint. For any readers within a couple of hours driving distance from Monterey Bay, this is a pretty special year to take a tour. I have been very impressed with Sanctuary Tours—the captain never chases or harasses the whales but really understands their behavior and always seems to be able predict in advance where some interesting behavior might happen. He is also an excellent photographer and the Sanctuary Tour website has many of his amazing photos in the Captains Log section.

The photos below capture some of the highlights I was able to photograph.

We saw about 10 breaches very close to the boat. According to Wikipedia, a breach occurs (by definition) when a whale leaps with at least 40% of its body out of the water, otherwise it is a lunge. The lunges I have seen involve lunge feeding, where the whale comes to the surface and it mouth wide to engulf a concentrated school of prey.

Below: A full on breach. About 90% of the whale cleared the water in this breach. According to WikipediaHumpbacks gain speed for breaches by swimming rapidly close to and parallel to the surface, and then “jerking upward to perform the breach”. Apparently, the whale has to be swimming 18 miles per hour to achieve 90% clearance of the body. Given their enormous size, breaches almost seem to occur in slow motion, but I still find them notoriously difficult to photograph.


Below: Another breach.


Below: Breaches result in enormous splashes, as this photo illustrates (this is the splash produced by breach in the previous photo). The function of breaches is unclear but several hypotheses have been proposed: communication (signal of dominance, courting, danger), dislodging parasites, prey scaring, visual assessment, and sheer joy. As a biologist who studies communication, I am convinced that there is likely to be a communication component to breaches. Breaching is one of a few different ways that Humpbacks make big splashes—they can slap their huge tails or huge flippers on the water (see photos below). Also, according to the captain on the tours I take, young animals often breach a lot. To me, this suggests practice (= play) of a behavior that is important in life. Wikipedia has the comment that some biologists think that breaching could be an ‘honest signal’—“The immense cloud of bubbles and underwater disturbance following a breach cannot be faked; neighbours then know a breach has taken place.”


Below: Another way of making splashes—a whale performed a headstand in the water with its tail sticking straight up in the air and then repeatedly slapped the water with its tail, which caused a huge splash. I also observed an individual making large splashes with its large pectoral fins. These fins apparently measure up to 15 feet in some whales (6 meters in one monster) or 30% of body length. According to Wikipedia, this is the longest pectoral fin in proportion to body size for any Cetacean.


Below: A playful whale (youngster?) playing on its back in the kelp. The whale was floating belly up at the surface with its fins out of the water. It seemed to be wrapping itself in the kelp.


Below: The same animal seems to be playing with the kelp.


Below: A couple of months ago I took my new kayak out for an inaugural spin and had some fun encounters with Humpback Whales. I joined some other kayakers just offshore from Moss Landing harbor and several whales approached us and surfaced within 20 feet. It took some skill to stay out of their way.


Below: The lovely silvery back of a whale surfacing near my kayak.


Finally, although I do not have a photo of lunge feeding, this video shows what lunge feeding is like. It also shows what it is like to be a diver who almost becomes whale food for two lunge-feeding humpbacks:

JAC: The double lunge occurs about 32 seconds in—don’t miss it!



27 thoughts on “Readers’ wildlife photos (with moar biology)

  1. These are beautiful photographs and I am sure the experience of kayaking close to the whales was amazing, if life-threatening.

    Humpback whales are an endangered species. They can weigh 150,000 pounds. This article says being struck by one is similar to being hit by a freight train

    Unfortunately kayaking so close to the whales is illegal and ultimately not good for the humans or the whales. Observe them from a safe and respectful distance.

    1. Could you read what Joe wrote above? He and his friends were not trying to get close to the whales. The whales surfaces close to them and they tried to stay away from them. Do not police such behavior unless you know what really happened: READ the post, please.

    2. I once dragged my kids a respectable distance from a pod of dolphins (>50) and they swam to us. A kayak tour was there and the guide was mad at us for being so close? The dolfins came to us…not the other way around. And they are loud.

      1. Maybe those dolphins were setting you up – “hey Ralph, let’s go swim toward this human & watch how the other humans gesture funny & flap that mouth thing they use for eating & breathing”. 😀

  2. Amazing stuff. I’m sure the whales knew they were there and had no interest in eating them, though one may be sensible not to rely on whales’ distaste for neoprene to stay safe.

  3. Great photos. I have had mom and baby come up to our tiny boat while en route from Molokini to Maui. I thought they were going to tip us over.

    This last summer, we saw full breaches from a distance (~ 1 km away) while on the beach on the Big Island. It was surreal. They last extraordinarily long…like might black dragons ready to take wing.

  4. The particular bits of sealife I’ve been trying to photograph for the last few days are extremely camera-shy. But I’m persisting.
    The “don’t go so near!” people won’t have anything to complain about.

  5. I’ve added this above but will put it here as well. The photos were taken by reader Bruce Lyon, but I misattributed them originally to another reader who sent me photos. (I have a decent backlog now and got things mixed up.) My apologies to Bruce.

  6. Great photos! I think a return to Monterey may be in my future. Nice ‘yak too!

    Monterey was the first aquarium I ever visited – I love their kelp tank and the tank with all the anchovies.

    1. You can look up Jerry’s email address on-line or on the back of WEIT. Then attach the photos and viola. If they’re good I think he will publish. Good commentary helps too I think.

  7. I guess I need to add that these whales have tiny throats, and couldn’t possibly swallow a human of any size, so being whale food just isn’t a risk.

    Getting crushed or drowned is, of course.

  8. Snorkle. When I played the video, I got a banner ad over it that said I could have seafood shipped anywhere in the US.
    So, did the ad generator think that the whales are seafood or the divers?
    The fact about whales that amazes me the most is that the blue whale is the largest known animal ever to have existed – yes, even larger than biggest dinosaurs we have yet found. That is just so awesome.

  9. (Megaptera novaeangliae)

    “big wings (of) New England”
    One of these days I’ll have to learn Latin. Or maybe not.

    1. At least half the word roots in Linnaean names aren’t from Latin anyway, so there may be no point in learning Latin without Greek. (I left both behind at the end of high school, but I’m definitely qualified to be a taxonomic pedant.)

  10. Thank you Bruce for the beautiful photos and wild video. Great commentary too. I’m jealous of such an unforgettable experience; that would be so fun!!! Don’t know if humpbacks make it up to WA, though I’ve seen some pods of Orcas in Puget sound. No photos though, so I guess it didn’t happen.

    1. Friends of mine have kayaked amongst humpbacks on the open Pacific side of Vancouver Island, so they definitely are as far north as Puget Sound.

      Puget Sound gets fairly frequent visits from Gray Whales, so maybe humpbacks too some day.

  11. We took an Alaska cruise for our 50th wedding anniversary. At one of the stops (don’t recall which) where there were supposed to be no whales, I was out on the veranda randomly looking around with binoculars. A whale breeched right where I was looking. My comment was, “Wow!”

  12. I and a colleague was once in a little zodiac raft in the Pacific off Costa Rica, and a humpback whale made a vertical breach next to us, seemingly looking at us, as we looked up into its eye. It fell back into the ocean and then did it again, and again, and again, always aimed so that its eye looked at us. I am sure it wanted to see what we were. It was one of the best wildlife encounters I have experienced in my life.

  13. Great photos and story, thanks for sharing this. LUCKY YOU! 🙂

    I was able to kayak near orcas once (off Vancouver Island) though not that close and also see them from less than 100 feet while standing on small (no motor) islands. (But never humpbacks; the only other whales I’ve seen in the wild were minke whales.) I’ve been “chased” by seals and dolphins many times while kayaking.

    If those whales didn’t want to be that close to those kayaks, they simply would not have been that close.

    In my experience, the marine mammals always come to us. Not sure why, maybe just curiosity?

    Though I fully agree, obviously, that it’s wrong and illegal to pproach whales that close.

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