Peggy and I are conducting research on commercial whale watching boats. Peggy has her own research vessel but with rising fuel prices and the costs involved in making the boat sea-worthy, she cannot afford to put it in the water. She had a choice; she could afford to take the boat out in the spring OR the autumn, but not both. She chose the autumn as she has collected less data for this time of year so needs to balance her research. This is the everyday reality for a conservationist; a lack of funds means difficult decisions must be taken regularly and life cannot always be as one would want. Peggy’s absolute first love is to be out on the water with the animals and she would spend 90% of her time at sea if she could. But often she may only get 10% of her time at sea with the other 90% being taken up on land carrying out education work, fundraising and other organisational tasks.
However, a mere lack of funds and dedicated research boat will not stop us getting out there and doing the research. Luckily, Peggy has an excellent relationship with most of the whale watch operators in and around Monterey, so we are able to go out on their boats several times a week. We may only get a few hours at sea rather than a whole day and cannot get as close to the animals, but we can still collect a wealth of data and photographs for the photo ID catalogue (used to identify individuals).
Now I have to tell you about the encounter we had this Wednesday but firstly I must give a mention to Monday. Monday was my birthday and we were welcomed on board Monterey Whale Watch’s boat ‘Princess Monterey’ owned by Benji Shake and captained by Leon Oliver. My birthday presents that day included seeing a pod of Risso’s dolphins and two groups of Humpbacks, with some spectacular breaching (where the animal propels itself out of the water) and fluking (where the animal dives and shows it’s tail, or flukes, as it does so), followed by flowers and dinner from Benji, and cake from Peggy. A lovely day all round.
But now, onwards to Wednesday. We were invited to join Naturalist Kate Cummings and Captain Jim Davis on Blue Ocean Whale Watch’s boat ‘High Spirits’.
We were hoping for Killer Whales, or Orca’s as they are often known, as these are the main focus of Peggy’s research, and Peggy had made a wish that morning to come across a group close to the boat. The transient Orca’s (transient meaning they are not resident here but roam over large areas of ocean), can enter the bay throughout the year but spring is a particularly good time to find them. At this time they are in the bay to hunt female Gray Whales and their calves. The Gray Whales are migrating through the area from Baja California in Mexico, where the mothers have given birth to their young, to their feeding grounds in the North.
This would be my first ever encounter with them, if we were lucky enough to find them, and they were a species which I had a secret wish to see close up. Well, we found them and had what turned out to be one of those rare encounters that happen once in a deep blue moon.
I’ll give you a running commentary version of events:
We are about 40 minutes out of port when Kate spots what she thinks are going to be Humpback Whales up ahead. Ten minutes later as we draw close it becomes apparent that these are not Humpbacks but Killer Whales. Suddenly there are Orca’s seemingly on all sides. They are spotted in front, then to one side, then further off to the other side. How many? Hard to tell at this point. They are moving purposefully in different directions, porpoising through the water, (leaping the waves to create less friction and travel faster). They are on the hunt, although hunting what exactly we cannot tell. Are they chasing multiple prey? Have they already corralled one victim away from a group or its mother to play with it before the kill? We keep watching, not fully aware as yet of the significance of the unfolding drama.
We have counted at least seven Orca’s by now with males, females and calves, but there are probably more as they have split off in different, disorientating directions. Up in front the action becomes more lively, with one or more Orca’s going into attack mode, leaping out of the water and crashing back down, possibly lunging on their prey, although the prey is still not visible to us. The breaches out of the water where the Orca’s entire body flies through mid-air for a flash of a moment are spectacular and draw stunned gasps from everyone on the boat. Then there is a split second moment where one adult Orca leaps and while in mid-air I glimpse something just ahead of its mouth; it has to be the prey. In that moment, Peggy and Kate are snapping away on their cameras with no idea of what image they may capture. Is this the actual moment of the kill, or was the victim already dead? Is it a Harbor Seal or Sea Lion fated to be their feast this day? We do not know, but I am aware of opposing feelings of thrill at having witnessed such a spectacle, gladness that the Orca’s have food to eat and empathy for the doomed victim.
After this climactic moment their behaviour changes. The pace slows, there is some general milling about with Orca’s popping up on different sides of the boat. Are they relaxing after their frenetic activity? Who is eating the kill? We do not see the prey being eaten so will never know if the calves are the ones to feast on this day. We do however have the privilege of seeing an adult Orca spyhop twice right in front of the boat (sticking its head directly up out of the water to take a peek at whatever is around; in this case us). In this moment their character appears different to us; from sleek, fast, determined, professional hunter to playful, inquisitive, multi-focussed and aware creature. (Although our human interpretations may be meaningless to these beautiful animals whose intelligence and consciousness are so different from ours.)
Their behaviour shifts again as they set off travelling in one clear direction, moving sometimes at the surface and then diving for a few minutes before resurfacing again further ahead. We hear that another boat about three miles ahead of us has also been with a group of Killer Whales. Have the two groups been communicating? Is our group now travelling to meet the other group further out in the bay? We follow the pod as they maintain their direct line of travel, by now we know there at least 11 individuals, but maybe more, with at least two males in the group, (mature males have much taller striking dorsal fins than females and immature males). Somewhere along the way, the group splits with some heading off southwards and the others west; whether any of them meet the group further out in the bay remains unknown to us as it is now time for our boat to start heading back to port.
All in all, we spend over an hour with this pod of Killer Whales and everyone is exuberantly happy, if a little exhausted, from the excitement of the experience. And I would say that none are more happy than Kate and Peggy who know better than anyone how rare and fortunate an encounter this has been
That night, Peggy sat in front of the computer going through over 500 photos from the trip. It was only now that we discovered in amazement that she had a picture of the actual kill. Now we could see that the prey was not a Seal or Sea Lion at all but was in fact a Harbor Porpoise.
… Or so we thought. The following morning, when looking with less tired eyes and comparing with Kate’s photos, we were able to determine that it was not a Harbor Porpoise but a dolphin of some kind.
…Species as yet unknown.
For more photographs look at Blue Ocean Whale Watch’s photo page!