The waters surrounding Channel Islands National Park are abounding with wildlife. A recent whale watching expedition gave the Havasi Wilderness Foundation the opportunity to interact with some of the 27 species of whales from the family cetacean who call the Channel Islands their home.
Somewhere around 26 miles from the Santa Barbara coastline, calls of “thar she blows”, a popular expression among whalers that is used to sound out the appearance of a nearby whale, could be heard from a choir of young children abroad the Condor Express. Spinning around to secure a spot on the starboard side (a nautical term that signifies the right side of the boat), I could see the short geyser of water that jetted from a whale’s spout. As we readied our cameras, three humpback whales took turns surfacing for air. The sea around the whales was alive with movement. While dolphins and sea lions could be seen jumping enthusiastically out of the water nearby, the whales themselves were not as easy to see. Their large backsides surfaced long enough for a spout of water to shoot into the air before they bobbed beneath the sea again.
Cetaceans are a diverse grouping of carnivorous aquatic mammals that are widely distributed through the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. The family includes dolphins, porpoises, beluga, and whales, and is separated into two groups: toothed and baleen whales. As their name suggests, toothed whales (or odontocetes) have teeth which they use to trap their food. Examples of toothed whales include the great white whale (most famously depicted in Herman Melville’s 1981 biopic Moby Dick), the sperm whale, and dolphins. Dolphins can be found swimming deep in the channel as well as in areas around surfers close to the California shoreline. They are some of the friendlier toothed whales and are renowned for their intelligence, curiosity, and complex communication style. Their sophisticated communication capabilities have been described to sound a lot like a whistle which allows them to exchange information with other members of their pod.
The baleen whale (or mysticetes) derives its name from the thick stringy layers of baleen that attach to the whale’s gum line. Baleen is made of keratin (the same substance that human fingernails and hair are made of). Unlike toothed whales, who use sonar to track down food and capture prey with their teeth, the baleen whale vacuums gallons of water from the sea and relies on the straw-like baleen to filter fish and krill from the mouthfuls of water that they ingest. Austin MacRae, a naturalist from the Channel Islands Naturalist Corps and our guide for the day, explained to us that in one gulp, a large baleen whale can swallow enough water to fill a medium-sized swimming pool! As I absorbed this information, I wondered aloud, how do whales carry and then expel such great amounts of water? Austin provided the answer: ventral pleats. Similar to a pelican’s pouch, the ventral pleats that line the abdomen of baleen whales, expand and contract like giant accordions. In one movement, they help push hundreds of gallons of water over the tongue and out of the whale’s mouth. During the expulsion of water, hundreds of small fish and plankton become trapped inside of the baleen where a whale can swallow them whole.
The boat rocked violently in a moody sea as we continued watching the three humpback whales. Known for their particularly large pectoral fins, humpbacks often use the technique of pectoral fin slapping (commonly referred to as “pec slapping”) to attract the attention of the opposite sex during mating season. When slapped against the ocean’s surface, their fins produce a spectacle of booming sounds and massive waves. Though we did not witness any pectoral slapping on our trip, we were amazed to see one of the more high-spirited humpbacks lift its tail high out of the water and smack the surface of the sea. As its tail plunged back into the dark ocean, Austin explained to us that like the human fingerprint, the humpback’s tail fin (called a fluke) is unique to each whale. Currently, researchers use high definition photography to capture images of flukes and add them to a database managed by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). These images help identify individual humpbacks, monitor their health, and track their whereabouts. This tracking system is significant because, according to NOAA, Humpback whales live in all major oceans from the equator to sub-polar latitudes and occasionally shipping channels, fisheries, and aquaculture may demolish humpback whale congregation areas.
Weighing in at a whopping 150 tons, the blue whale holds the record of the largest mammal on the planet. To sustain such a massive creature, 9000 pounds (4.5 tons) of fish and krill must be consumed each day. Though we did not encounter any blue whales on our expedition, they can be found feeding in the waters off of the Channel Islands during the summertime before heading to the warmer waters of Mexico to have their babies. Austin shared his thoughts about blue whales with me, explaining:
“I always like to talk about blue whales because they are the biggest and heaviest of animal ever to live on the planet! Bigger than any dinosaur even! The heart of a blue whale is the size of a Volkswagen and so, hypothetically, a child could crawl through its arteries. The tongue of a blue whale is as heavy as a bull elephant and their lungs are as big as a school bus. Essentially, they are gargantuan! They weigh 200+ tons and can reach sizes of up to 110 feet long in the Antarctic Ocean.”
Waters off of the coast of California vary drastically from those in the Arctic Circle. A cold northern current and a warm southern current collide in the waters off of the Southern California coast and create large nutrient pockets. These pockets of dense nourishment act as ideal feeding grounds for whales, dolphins, sea lions, and other marine mammals who use the summer months to build up fat stores (blubber) that they will live off of during the winter. Like human mammals, whales must maintain a body temperature of 99 ° Fahrenheit (37 ° Celsius). In order to preserve this temperature, they migrate from cooler waters in the summertime to warmer waters in the wintertime.
As humans, we rely on our autonomic nervous system to regulate our breath. This allows us to breathe involuntarily, without ever having to think about it. Unlike human beings, humpback whales are conscious breathers, which means they have to remember to breathe at all times- even when they are asleep. To ensure that they remember to surface for air, cetaceans conserve half of their brain function while sleeping. Researchers studying dolphin and whale populations in captivity have noted that dolphins seem to shut down half of their brain and sleep with one eye open (the eye on the opposite side of the resting brain) for a period of around two hours. After two hours, the opposite side of the brain shuts down and the corresponding eye will close. It is mind-boggling to think of the evolutionary trait that encourages continual consciousness among cetaceans.
Like dolphins, humans have been historically curious about the world that surrounds them. With less than ten percent of the world’s oceans having been explored, there are still entire ecosystems that remain a mystery to us. Rather than succumb to a life of uncertainty, it is important to feed your curiosity, get outside, and explore your world!
Until next week,
Interested in whale watching? The Condor Express (Click link to view) is an excellent option for a whale expedition. The leave from the Santa Barbara Harbor and guarantee that you will see whales. If for some reason the captain cannot find any whales during your day trip, then you can return without a fee to go on an expedition until you do see one. Remember that when you’re exploring, you should take plenty of sun screen, a hat that shades, long-sleeved clothing, and (if you tend to get as queasy as I do) find some Dramamine and bring along a carbonated beverage as this helps sensitive stomachs. Take it from me, you should never go out on a boat without having something in your stomach.
Anchors up and full steam ahead!