Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Bruce Lyon greets us this day with marine mammals. His notes are indented:

A couple of days ago Sanctuary Cruises, my favorite whale tour company, posted that the whale activity was going through the roof down at Moss Landing, including lots of orcas. The surf forecast for last Thursday was for unusually calm seas and since I get seasick on a swing, on the spur of the moment I decided to go whale watching. I was treated to a five hour spectacle—the best whale watching trip I have ever been on. We saw four whale species: 30-40 humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae), 10 orcas (two different groups) (Orcinus orca), 2 gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) and, just before heading back into harbor, a magnificent blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) (the largest animal to have ever lived). Since it is also peak spring migration for birds, we also saw a good selection of seabirds.

A photographer who accompanies the tours (Chase Dekker) brought out his new drone and got some lovely video of the blue whale we saw. A couple of days earlier he got video of one of the same orca groups we observed. Both videos are posted on the tour company’s Facebook site [JAC: be sure to click the links; you won’t want to miss these videos]:

Blue whale 


Whales are protected against harassment by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which means we are not allowed to do things that negatively affect their behavior. So, an obvious question is whether filming whales with a drone is a form of harassment. I have been studying animal behavior for four decade and to me the the answer is a resounding no!  The photographer is a careful guy who thinks about what he is doing and he is aware that drones do disturb some animals (e.g. sea otters) but not others (whales). He was also filming the animals from well over 150 feet away. My sense is the whales are completely oblivious to drones. It would be interesting to see if the animals that are affected by drones are species that are vulnerable to predation from aerial predators. Colleagues of mine specifically tested the effects of drones on the elephant seals that breed north of Santa Cruz at Año Nuevo State Park. They concluded that drones have no effect on elephant seals. This is handy because they can now use drones to survey and map the seal population at the rookeries.

A California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) checks us out as we leave the harbor:

As soon as we left the harbor, we repeatedly observed the sudden appearance of seething masses of hundreds of sea lions at the water’s surface. They appeared to concentrating schools of fish—we saw this happen 5 or 6 times and, each time, as soon as the sea lions began churning up the water two or three humpback whales would quickly join the feast.

Sea lions churning up the fish:

And then some humpbacks join the feast:

The orcas were magnificent and stole the show. We saw a couple of breachers, lots of tail slapping and at one point a group of seven raced along side our boat, matching our full speed for five minutes, leaping out of the water at times. The group of seven racing our boat eventually came in contact with a group of three animals that we had been observing earlier in the day. At this point the orcas were particularly active in terms of interesting behaviors and I wondered if this was because the two different groups came together, communicating and interacting with each other.

Below, the group of three orcas we had been following earlier— a male with his huge fin, a mom with a small fin and her baby that enjoyed slapping its tail every time it came to the surface:

Another view of the same group. The difference in fin size of males and females is notable and interesting:

The frisky male orca leaps out of the water. This group was friendly and came up to our boat to inspect us and then swam right under the boat:

A breacher:

Whenever we saw orcas we also saw black-browed albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), the first ones I have ever seen. The tour naturalist told us that the albatross are often found around the orcas— apparently they follow them, perhaps for scraps.

A black-footed albatross comes in to check out the orcas:

And then lands right beside the boat with a water ski technique:

Recently huge numbers of loons have been on the move, migrating towards their arctic tundra breeding grounds. A count done from land up the coast recorded over 60,000 loons passing by in one day. Below, a Pacific loon (Gavia pacifica) and common murre (Uria aalge) migrating north along the coast. I often see murres mixed in with the loons:
Recently, fork-tailed storm-petrels (Oceanodroma furcata) have showed up in large numbers unusually close to shore in Central California—they are normally found well offshore. One possibility is that recent strong offshore winds pushed shoreward. Here a petrel cruises by the boat:
A few days ago these petrels also showed up along the coast where I watch the peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus). Being offshore birds, they seem to have little experience with peregrines and they are therefore sitting ducks. I watched the female falcon pick a petrel off the water, and she then brought it directly to the nest (below photo). The peregrines brought in two other petrels to the nest and I expect there were several others brought in when I was not watching the birds. Like snatching up bits of popcorn!


  1. Debbie Coplan
    Posted May 14, 2017 at 8:47 am | Permalink

    This is an astounding post. What a incredible descriptions and photos of such wonderful creatures.
    The videos are breath taking…
    I love the photo of the landing of the black-browed albatross, captured the description perfectly.
    Thank you Bruce for my Mother’s Day gift!
    and a happy Mother’s Day to all….

  2. merilee
    Posted May 14, 2017 at 8:59 am | Permalink

    Great photos, Bruce!

  3. Randy schenck
    Posted May 14, 2017 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Very nice pictures from paradise.

  4. Michael Fisher
    Posted May 14, 2017 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    Very good!

  5. rickflick
    Posted May 14, 2017 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    A great tour of the west coast!

  6. Posted May 14, 2017 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Absolutely awesome. Wow!
    I had gone on a similar tour, ages ago, and we saw some grey whales.
    I agree that the drones do not seem to bother the whales at all. Their behavior reads completely normal.

  7. Taskin
    Posted May 14, 2017 at 10:13 am | Permalink


  8. Heather Hastie
    Posted May 14, 2017 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Fantastic Bruce! I enjoyed these pics immensely.

  9. Posted May 14, 2017 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Great shots, especially of the orcas and the albatross!

  10. Terry Sheldon
    Posted May 14, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Amazing stuff! Thanks for the great post!!

  11. Jenny Haniver
    Posted May 14, 2017 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I agree with the other commentators that these photos are stunning. But I wonder — the news last week and the week before was full of reports of much bloody carnage in those waters because large numbers of orcas, humpbacks and other whales had converged in the Monterey Bay area and the orcas were feasting gray whales,etc., while humpbacks were trying to protect the gray whales (so the reports go).

    • Posted May 14, 2017 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Quite possibly. But these events would be happening because whale populations are growing back from previous very low #s.

      • Mike
        Posted May 15, 2017 at 7:27 am | Permalink

        Well Orcas have to eat, and I know they patrol Monterey Bay looking for Grey Whales heading North with their Calves, one of the interesting thing about Orcas, each Pod seem to have it’s own method of predation ,passed down through the generations. one astounding fact among many about the magnificent Blue Whale, they can’t swallow anything larger than an Orange.!

    • Bruce Lyon
      Posted May 14, 2017 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

      It is true that there was quite a bit of predation reported, but after all some orcas are top predators that specialize on whales (others are fish specialists). Predators do have to eat, even if predation is not always pretty. There were reports of humpbacks harassing orcas, presumably to make them leave the area. I am a bit skeptical about the reports that humpbacks would be defending grey whales but perhaps this is actually what was going on.

  12. John Conoboy
    Posted May 14, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Great pictures Bruce. I am also a big fan of Sanctuary Cruises. Went out with them a few years ago, but my pictures were disappointing. Will have to go back. They have excellent naturalists on board and go out for a longer time than the other boats.

  13. Glenda
    Posted May 14, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    WOW, almost like being there.

  14. Dale Franzwa
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 12:50 am | Permalink

    Regarding sea lions. As an ocean sport fisherman, I have little love for this over-populated species. For one thing, their presence can easily kill an otherwise good fish bite. Quite a few times, I’ve had a hefty fish on only to suddenly find my line spooling off as if it had been tangled around a submarine. Sea lion, of course. Eventually, it chews through the fish at the gills, leaving me with only the fish head on my line and a few curses on my lips.

    Decades ago (1960s and earlier decades) all skippers on sport fishing boats (commercial fishers as well) carried shotguns or rifles on board to kill occasional sea lions venturing too close to the boats.

    This practice ended with the passage of the MMPA (1970s). The act, originally intended to stop commercial overfishing of tuna stocks by making it illegal to kill dolphins that frequently swam in among tuna schools and would die when caught in nets, unfortunately, was written to include all sea-going mammals.
    Mexico soon added legislation prohibiting guns on any boats in their waters.

    The result? Sea lion populations among other mammals increased tremendously over the years. They are abundant in most harbors up and down the west coast. Sea lions often like to sleep out of the water and frequently try to board boats in marinas. Small boats can be over-tuned, others damaged. Furthermore, they can and do bite people on docks and other water structures. They also station themselves at the mouths of rivers where spawning salmon come to swim upriver. They are believed to be responsible for severely reducing salmon populations along the Pacific coast (firm data aren’t really available here).

    I could cite many more problems due to over-populated sea lions but you can see why I have no love for the critters.

    Politicians are afraid to legislate solutions to reduce sea lion populations because enviros have been successful in unseating those politicos. Thus, the problem remains and non-lethal solutions are only minimally effective. And, of course, people just love sea lions. Their eyes look so sad.

  15. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted May 15, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    whale activity was going through the roof

    That raises a very different image than the intended.

  16. Jim Smith
    Posted May 16, 2017 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    About a week ago I was down in the Canadian Fisheries small boat harbor in Richmond, BC, at their welding dock looking at a friends prawn boat getting finished. Well I look over the side at some point and their is a big seal, and the way he was hanging around the boat he was looking for a free meal. Huge. I thought, is that a young sea elephant, I mean what the hell is that? I figure 500 or 600 pounds. And I finally realized it was a sea lion. I’ve seen them on rocks and docks but I guess never close enough to realize how huge these thing were. I thought they were closer to 300 lbs. When I told my sailboating brother about it he laughed. I was looking at a Stellar sea lion and as I have since found out it was either a youngish male (adult males will hit around 1250 lbs) or an adult female. Taught me something. Eat your herring and salmon and you will grow up big and strong.

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