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!