Whale watching and mass predation

Here are just a few photos and videos of our whale-watching trip that left from Moss Landing, California, and took four hours. I was accompanied by UCSC ecologist/ornithologist Bruce Lyon, who also showed us on this trip peregrines and the elephant seals I wrote about previously. Bruce has contributed many photo series to this site.

We were in search of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), and I’ll let Wikipedia tell you about it:

One of the larger rorqual species, adults range in length from 12–16 m (39–52 ft) and weigh around 25–30 metric tons (28–33 short tons). The humpback has a distinctive body shape, with long pectoral fins and a knobbly head. It is known for breaching and other distinctive surface behaviors, making it popular with whale watchers. Males produce a complex song lasting 10 to 20 minutes, which they repeat for hours at a time. Its purpose is not clear, though it may have a role in mating.

Bruce has better photos than I, as he is a much better photographer and has much better equipment, so I’ll post those later. In the meantime, here are two videos and a few photos I took with my point and shoot camera.

The humpbacks are herding and gulping down huge flocks of anchovies, helped by gazillions of seals (or sea lions; look for the ears to see the latter), with birds hanging around to eat the scraps. What one sees first is a literal carpet of seals and birds on the surface, which appear from nowhere. Then you know that a whale surfacing is imminent, as I think the seals help with the herding.  Then the giants surface, audibly blowing through their blowholes and gulping huge mouthfuls of fish. The seals and birds enjoy the leavings.

Here’s what it looks like:

More of the same. After eating, the humpbacks, with a very small dorsal fin (what use is it?), dive again, usually lifting their flukes out of the water

This is what it looks like from underwater (a BBC video). Notice the huge gulp at the end with which these behemoths (baleen feeders) engulf an entire school of fish:

Three whales “lunge feeding”, driving fish to the surface and then, in a group (they often work together), rising to the surface with mouths open. These were close to the boat, as you can see, and the naturalist estimated there were about eighteen humpbacks feeding around our boat.

The seal carpet marking where the whales come up. Note its tiny dorsal fin.

That she blows! (And a fluke.)

Another lunge feeding:

Dripping fluke:

Common dolphin (Delphinus sp.; is it the short beaked dolphin?) playing by swimming at our bow:

And Bruce Lyon with his gigantic lens, happy (as was I) that we had a successful trip.

 

30 Comments

  1. yazikus
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    Wonderful whale pictures. I hope to someday see something so majestic.
    I live up in the Pacific North West, and some of you may have been hearing about our troubles with our resident orcas – J-Pod. One of the mamas made headlines after her calf died and she carried it for weeks and thousands of miles. Another is severely emaciated and we’ve been feeding it salmon with dewormer and antibiotics. Some have suggested that in addition to cutting fishing, we need to cut back on the whale watching as well. Basically making the point that the boats are harassing the already stretched thin whales. Is there any evidence backing that up?

  2. Mudskipper
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Those are all California sea lions.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Sub

  4. rickflick
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    Wow! Whales galore. I’ve never been whale watching. I’d love to get up close to the feeding.
    Attenborough’s film ends with a devastating scene of a whale in action from below. Be sure to check that out.

  5. Jon Gallant
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Many years ago, I went to Sea World in San Diego and paid an unauthorized visit to the whale pool after the last “show”, when no other visitors were there. One of the Orcas surfaced right in front of me, flashed the great, five-foot wide, toothy grin, and commenced to speak in a succession of whistles, buzzes, and croaks. Orcish is not among the four languages I can converse in, but I walked around the pool for about 15 minutes, while the whale companionably kept pace, and kept rearing out of the water at my feet to continue the colloquy. Several weeks later, an ethologist told me that the whale’s behaviour was exactly what Orcas do toward seals on an ice-floe, in order to persuade them to come into the water to be eaten.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted September 10, 2018 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

      “…an ethologist told me that the whale’s behaviour was exactly what Orcas do toward seals on an ice-floe, in order to persuade them to come into the water to be eaten…”

      Pied piper? It would be something to see that happen. What is that seal thinking – the one who chooses to ‘play’ with an orca rather than lie on the ice?

    • Posted September 10, 2018 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

      I bet there is some connection to the mythology of mermaids singing their siren songs.

      • Posted September 10, 2018 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps you should consider yourself lucky you were not snatched!

  6. Posted September 10, 2018 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    Well, at least *somebody* likes anchovies.

  7. Posted September 10, 2018 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Very beautiful. As Im sure Grania will confirm, we have fin whales off the coast of Ireland at the moment. I have some pics being prepped.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Wow, bringin’ a camera on-board a boat with Bruce Lyon is like flashin’ a knife in front of Crocodile Dundee, huh?

    • Posted September 10, 2018 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      Indeed! “You call that a camera? Now THIS is a camera!” (He didn’t say that!)

  9. Posted September 10, 2018 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  10. Posted September 10, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Ooh! Canon 100-400mm Mark II spotted! I have that lens now and can verify shes’ a heavy ‘un.

    • Mark R.
      Posted September 10, 2018 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I’m sure he had to use a high shutter speed in that grey weather and on a choppy surface trying to steady that lens. (Assuming he didn’t use a tripod or monopod that’s not shown.) I have a Nikkor 80-200 (about half the size) and it’s a bugger to get sharp handheld photos when it’s not bright and still.

      • Posted September 11, 2018 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        I love the 5-axis IS in my Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II.

      • Posted September 12, 2018 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        Tripod/monopod would not help much on a boat deck that was moving with the waves.

  11. Mark R.
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this enjoyable post. What fun that must have been! I’ve seen humpback, orca and beluga whales in the wild, but never so many, so close, and with so much activity.

  12. Posted September 10, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Re “a very small dorsal fin (what use is it?)” So they can play a shark in the school play?

    On Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 11:02 AM Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “Here are just a few photos and videos of our > whale-watching trip that left from Moss Landing, California, and took four > hours. I was accompanied by UCSC ecologist/ornithologist Bruce Lyon, who > also showed us on this trip peregrines and the elephant seals ” >

  13. Michael Fisher
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting behaviour from the cooperating bird, mammal & fish predator species. HERE is a video of Norwegian orcas ‘carousel feeding’ on herring – the herring are fast & nimble so the orca use tail slaps to stun the ‘herd’ with pressure waves. The orca also flash their white undersides to panic the herring into the ball formation.

    I wonder – if an orca had turned up in the Attenborough video would it cooperate or snack on sea lion?

  14. darrelle
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I can’t stress enough how envious I am of you. That looks like it was a phenomenal whale watching expedition. I can nearly guarantee that if I went on such a trip we would have seen nary a sign of whales on that day.

  15. Joe Dickinson
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    You certainly hit an unusually good day out of Moss Landing. The closest I’ve come to comparable feeding activity was in the channel just outside Juneau, Alaska.

  16. Blue
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    My word, Dr Coyne ! I have been three days’ float time
    down Canada’s Inside Passage upon
    the Southeast Alaskan Marine Highway ferry and
    a l l of it withOUT such gazing – good fortune !

    L o v e l y !

    Blue

  17. jhs
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing the awesome videos!

  18. Posted September 10, 2018 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

    Did you mean to type “THAR she blows”, Jerry?
    Thanks for a most wonderful post. I’d love to experience that. It’s a trip of a lifetime!

    (Anchovies are one of my favourite things to eat, she says to Keith at comment #6).

  19. Heather Hastie
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful trip that was!!! Whale watching in a feeding situation is something I’ve always wanted to do, and these pics made me salivate! I can’t wait to see Bruce’s pics as well.

  20. ladyatheist
    Posted September 10, 2018 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

    I bet the one with the smallest dorsal fin has the biggest pick-up truck.

  21. Diane G
    Posted September 11, 2018 at 2:59 am | Permalink

    Splendid!

  22. garthdaisy
    Posted September 11, 2018 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Beautiful but you know what is really really bad for whales? Whale watching. Google it.

    • Posted September 11, 2018 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      I think it depends on how it’s done.

      In Rosario Straight, they used to drive up to the whales.

      Now, they (the boats) stop (and there are LOT’S of patrols) and wait for the whales to swim past them. They aren’t allowed to motor closer than about 300m. The whales swim right up to the boats (if you are lucky).

      Sure, it can be done really badly.

      Given your claim, you may have wanted to to flesh it out a bit more than “google it”.


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