Spyhopping with whales
One of life’s great adventures is to be sailing out on the ocean and have an encounter with the largest creature on earth. Visitors to Morro Bay, Tammy and Phil from the Central Valley, elected to go on a whale-watching trip. The boat left Morro Bay harbor in the morning and they enjoyed sunny skies and calm seas. They were greeted by dolphins who flashed through the water off the bow. “We were excited to at least see one whale,” Tammy said. The Captain cut the motor. It got quiet. Suddenly it happened. The silence was broken by a huge sigh and a fountain of spray as an enormous whale broke the surface not 20 away. It was a blue whale.
Sightings of blue whales are increasing although they are still the most elusive of the whale species. Blue whales can grow to 100 feet and weigh about 150 tons. Even calves are large measuring up to 25 feet at birth. A blue whale’s heart is about the size of a small Volkswagen. They are the largest animal known to man on earth, past or present. These are baleen whales, have no teeth, and feed on huge amounts of krill. They are mostly seen around the Farallon Islands off the San Francisco coast but there are sightings of them as they travel through local waters.
Patriot Sportfishing operates out of Morro Bay Landing offering a great whale watching experience all year long. The captain and crew are skilled at tracking down sea life including gray whales, blue whales, humpback whales, finback whales, Orcas, dolphins, sea lions, sea otters and a variety of seabirds. On a two-hour excursion, people are usually bound to see at least one whale although there is never a guarantee.
Sub Sea Tours located near Marina Square offers whale watching with two vessels, The Dos Osos catamaran and their newest boat the Freedom. “The benefit of the Dos Osos is that it is an open boat so people can see all around,” explained Captain and owner, Kevin Winfield.
Whales can be seen all year but there are also distinct seasons. Twice a year gray whales travel up and down the west coast. Their migration route is from their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic to winter breeding lagoons in Baja, California. They’ve been doing this for thousands of years. Scientists have not yet figured out how new generations learn the way nor how they navigate the route without error. Gray whales are baleen whales and reach up to 50 feet and weigh about 40 tons. Females are larger than males. They have an average lifespan of 40 years. They are slate gray in color and are mottled with white pigmentation and barnacle scars.
Winfield said he runs daily whale watching trips during the summer months with winter trips varying due to weather. Gray whale southward migration begins in October and lasts through February. They return going north from February through July with females and newborn and the young are often the prey of killer whales. Some trips have folks able to reach out over the boat and scratch the hide of a gray whale as they appear to be either friendly or curious.
Virg’s Sportfishing also operates whale watching and nature tours out of Morro Bay beginning in January and continuing through April. Gray whales and humpbacks are the delights of these trips.
Humpback whales are distinctive due to their long, narrow, scalloped flippers which they use to slap the water. They grow to 50 feet in length and have a thick body. There is a small dorsal fin well back on the body. As they progress through the water the top part of their body becomes visible and appears in a hump-like shape.
Probably the whale that causes the most excitement for tour-goers, the humpback likes to project itself up from the water with one-third of their body visible. This tactic is called spyhopping and no one knows for sure why they do it. Humpbacks also leap up and fully throw themselves out of the water and come splashing down. Called breaching, it is one of the best spectacles in nature. “This is why we come here to go whale watching,” a visiting tourist exclaimed, “where else can you see so much wildlife?”
–By Ruth Ann Angus