Monterey Bay Whale Watch - February 1999 Feature


--- Summary of 1998 Whale Watch Season ---
By Nancy Black

Monterey Bay Whale Watch conducted year-round trips during 1998 to observe the diversity of marine life within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Our biologists documented all marine mammal species including location, group size, and behavior. We also photo-identified individual humpback whales, blue whales, and killer whales, and contributed the photo-identifications to scientists working on these species.

Gray Whale The year started off with the southern migration of the Gray Whale which was a bit delayed due to El Niño conditions, and therefore late ice formation in their Alaskan feeding grounds. This allowed the whales more time to feed before the area became covered with ice. The migration peaked off Monterey between the 2nd and 3rd week of January with over 50 whales sighted per three-hour trip, with whale group sizes ranging from 10 to 15. The highlight of the season was our observation of a Gray Whale giving birth to her calf inside the Bay off Pacific Grove. There were several other mothers with newborn calves observed during January as well. As the population increases it is not uncommon for whales to give birth before they reach the Mexican lagoons, although before this year no one had witnessed such an event in Monterey Bay.

Killer Whale For unexplained reasons the northern migration of the Gray Whale was early, with the first northbounders observed during the second week of February. As in past years, we observed several groups of mating whales during March, often engaged in this activity for several hours. As the main migration of adult and juvenile whales passed us in early April, the migration of mothers with calves was just beginning in our area. This is a time of danger for the young calves as Killer Whales prefer to hunt them in Monterey Bay as they cross the deep canyon and are away from the protection of shore. Our biologists, who focus on Killer Whale research in Monterey Bay, worked with the BBC Natural History Unit during this period to study and film Killer Whale attacks on Gray Whales. Although this is an unpredictable event, we observed three full attacks and the end of a fourth. The Killer Whales generally work as a group to tire the Gray Whales, separate the mother from calf, and eventually kill the calf, often taking up to 6 hours to complete. All the Killer Whales involved have been previously identified in the Bay and are included in our published killer whale catalog.

Humpback Whale Spring marked the beginning of the upwelling season, coinciding with the arrival of Humpback and Blue Whales to feed on the abundance of fish and krill in the Monterey Bay region and along the central coast. May and June offered incredible opportunities to watch multi-species feeding aggregations in the Bay involving Humpback Whales, thousands of Long Beaked Common Dolphins, hundreds of California Sea Lions and up to 10,000 seabirds, mostly Sooty Shearwaters. The dolphins appeared to be herding the fish towards the surface and the Humpbacks would cooperatively lunge up through the fish in groups of twos or threes. People who witnessed this could not believe the tremendous concentration of species in a relatively small area. This phenomenon was featured on the opening section of the CBS Sunday morning news with just natural sounds and film.

Common Dolphin As El Niño conditions seemed to subside and wind conditions became favorable for pulses of upwelling, both Humpback and Blue Whales were consistently sighted through the summer and fall period. An abundance of sardines and krill was the mainstay for these whales. As during the winter and spring, Common Dolphins, both long beaked and short beaked species were the most abundant dolphin in the Bay through the end of fall, often encountered in groups of over 2,000 individuals. They displaced the normally abundant and frequently sighted Pacific White-Sided Dolphin which was still occasionally present but in smaller group sizes. Baird's Beaked Whales were sighted several times during October, as in past years. Killer Whales were sighted 2-5 times per month with peaks in spring and fall. October marked above average sightings and numbers (1,000 per group) of Risso's Dolphins, often in the company of Northern Right Whale Dolphins. As Risso's Dolphins are known to feed only on squid and on at least 13 different species in the Bay, there were likely large concentrations of squid at this time.

Another late burst of upwelling in October created huge krill concentrations off the coast between Pt Pinos and south of Pt Lobos, near the canyon edge, and lasted through most of November. This late season krill brought on some days up to 100 whales to the area including Humpback Whales, Blue Whales and Fin Whales. Fin Whales are not commonly seen in most years, but were a consistent presence during October and November. In early December we started to see a few gray whales, and we expect to see normal numbers of whales during their migration period from December through April.


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U R Here Features -- February 1999

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

Copyright © 1999 Monterey Bay Whale Watch. All rights reserved.
Photographs by Nancy Black.

Last updated February 8, 1999