Monterey Bay Whale Watch - May 2000 Feature


Click on small pictures below to see full-size photos (size 14K - 22K).

Spring Brings Humpback Whales to Feed in Monterey Bay
By Nancy Black

Click to see large Humpback Whale Photo Humpback whales have arrived in large numbers to feed in Monterey Bay. As of May 1st, our counts indicate there are at least 40 to 50 humpbacks in the Bay feeding on large schools of anchovies. This is a key indicator that we are entering a new season off the California coast -- the prime feeding season for whales, dolphins, and seabirds. The gray whale migration is nearing an end, but we expect mother/calf pairs of gray whales to continue past our coast through May on their way to Alaska.

The humpback whales that are currently in Monterey Bay have just arrived from their breeding areas off the coast of southern Mexico and Central America. Humpback whales are an endangered species with a population of around 1,000 that migrates from Mexico to California each year. Humpbacks occur in all the oceans and there are at least three separate populations in the North Pacific. Once they arrive at California they begin feeding off our coast through the summer and fall.

Their arrival at Monterey Bay coincides with the upwelling season. During this period, afternoon winds drive the nutrients from the deep up to the surface, and the sun fuels massive plankton blooms. This provides food for fish and krill, which are consumed by humpback whales, blue whales, dolphins, other fish, and seabirds.

Thumbnail of Humpback Whale next to boat Humpback whales are among the most interesting and spectacular whales to watch, as they often breach, lunge feed (where nearly half their body lunges out of the water with the mouths open and throat pleats expanded to engulf tons of water with their food), pec slap, tail slap and exhibit other surface behaviors. Sometimes they even become curious about our boat and will hang out right next to us as they spyhop, roll on their sides, blow bubbles and exhibit what we call "friendly whale" behavior.

When the humpback whales arrive, Monterey Bay Whale Watch switches to 5-6 hour trips. Since the whales are feeding and not migrating (as the gray whales do), they move around the Bay and outer waters searching for the best feeding areas. We need enough time to reach all their feeding areas, plus plenty of time to watch them. With this trip length, we can often find both humpback and blue whales plus several kinds of dolphins and occasionally killer whales, minke whales, fin whales and beaked whales.

Currently, the humpback whales are feeding on massive schools of anchovies. Each day the whales have been moving with the fish schools and we have been locating them inside and near the edge of the Monterey Submarine Canyon. We have also been sighting large groups (1,000 +) of Risso's dolphins and Pacific white-sided dolphins. The dolphins are farther out over the edge of the canyon, feeding on squid and anchovies. With the changing seasons, many seabirds are also arriving, including black footed albatross and thousands of shearwaters.

Click for full-size Killer whale photo In addition to running our regular whale watch trips, we are working with the National Geographic Society for the third year on a film about Monterey Bay and our research on killer whales. As part of this research project, some of our biologists are out every day on our second boat searching for killer whales. At this time, the killer whales frequent Monterey Bay in search of mother/calf gray whales. They are hunting the gray whale calves, and we are studying these incredible predation events. Unlike the humpback whales, killer whales are unpredictable and we never know when we will find them.

So as we continue into the spring, we expect more humpbacks to arrive each day along with the possibility of killer whale predation events and large numbers of dolphins. Monterey Bay has historically been a prime feeding area for humpback whales, and at one time in the early 1900's they were heavily hunted here. In the last few years, the numbers of humpbacks feeding in the Bay has been increasing and we hope they are reinhabiting the productive waters of Monterey Bay. Our biologists continue to photo-identify all individual whales and contribute the photos to the large project underway by Cascadia Research Collective to monitor the population and recovery of the North Pacific Humpback whales.

See our Photo Gallery for whale and dolphin photographs taken during April and May 2000.


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Monterey Bay Whale Watch, LLC
84 Fisherman's Wharf
Monterey, CA 93940
Phone 831-375-4658  

Copyright © 2000 Monterey Bay Whale Watch. All rights reserved.
Photos by Nancy Black and Richard Ternullo.

Last updated May 8, 2000