Blue whales off the coast of Southern California? Who knew? I surely didn’t. Am I the last to hear about the appearance of the largest mammals on the planet so close to our shores?
No, says Chad Steffen, a naturalist with Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching in Dana Point (Orange County). The word is still getting out.
“The blue whales have only been in these waters for the last six to eight years,” he says, scanning the ocean with large binoculars from the wheelhouse of the excursion boat Dana Pride. “We don’t know why they’ve come here, but they follow the food and there is a lot of krill in this area now.”
The abundance of krill could be due to cooler-than-usual waters — the ideal environment for the proliferation of the tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans.
The excitement level on board rises when we encounter our first blue. The gentle giant, which casts an aquamarine color from our vantage point, slides through the water, skimming the surface several times to fill its lungs with air preparing for a really deep dive.
When the huge whale tail slaps the water, it leaves a large, slick-looking, circular pattern on the ocean’s surface called a footprint. A few minutes later, Steffen calls attention to the sonar on the dashboard.
“You see this thick line here?” he asks, pointing to the screen. “This is krill, and this little black line is a blue whale.”
Maybe it’s the whale we saw just a few minutes ago. Like a torpedo, it’s headed toward the bottom of the ocean floor, which makes a dramatic drop from about 500 feet to 1,300 feet just under our boat.
Consider these facts about blue whales, courtesy of Steffen and the American Cetacean Society:
— Blue whales can be up to 100 feet or more in length. The Northern Hemisphere variety usually measures up to 80 feet. (The longest blue ever recorded was 108 feet.)
— Females are larger than males.
— The heart of a blue whale is about the size of a Volkswagen.
— Blues eat up to 7,000 pounds of food (krill) a day.
— Females get pregnant every two to three years; gestation is 12 months.
— Calves nurse for about eight months and are weaned when they are about 52 feet long.
— The whaling industry grew in the early 20th century because of the demand for whale oil. A single blue whale could yield up to 120 barrels.
— There once were about 200,000 blue whales in the Pacific. Today there are about 2,000; 12,000 worldwide.
Today, the protected blue whale is hunted only by friendly crowds like those on today’s excursion on the Dana Pride. In between whale sightings, Steffen and boat captain Mike Hansen bring us into the middle of several playful pods of dolphin.
There are three varieties, Steffen explains: the colorful common dolphin, the larger bottlenose dolphin, and the usually elusive Risso’s dolphin. Lucky for us, the latter has decided to be more social today.
Overall, it’s an excellent day. Our calm seas and beautiful skies bring us four blue whales and perhaps hundreds of dolphins, who oblige with a gymnastics show and a run along our bow. It’s a satisfied crowd when we dock more than two hours later, but had we not been as lucky, passengers would have gotten a free pass for another cruise.
Check Dana Wharf’s website for a daily tally of sightings and directions: danawharf.com. Trips leave daily at 5 p.m. Adults $32; kids (3-12) $19. Tuesdays are half price. Call (949) 496-5794.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.