• Otter Views: Moss Landing Whale Smorgie

    The most humpback whales your correspondent has yet seen in one locale were breeching and blowing off Moss Landing all week. A friend and I finally got out there Saturday at dusk, then returned with binoculars on Sunday for a better look.

    It was a whale smorgasbord out there, and the banquet was surprisingly close to shore. An article in Friday’s Monterey Herald reported that at least 15 humpbacks had been enjoying “an anchovy feast” just off the Moss Landing Harbor. One whale reportedly swam right into the harbor mouth.

    A terrific photo taken from a charter boat accompanied the story. It shows three humpbacks – or their knobby heads, anyway – piercing the surface while gouts of seawater gush from their mouths. The whales pictured were “lunge feeding,” the caption explains.

    The photo piqued my interest on a couple of counts. First, it shows the whales surfacing at the same moment and about as close together as three whales can get. With their pointy snouts topping vastly pouched-out gullets, they look like hooded Franciscan friars standing shoulder to shoulder in the ocean.

    Even more remarkable was their proximity to shore. Behind the whales, the photo shows people walking on the beach and seafood restaurants so close you can read the signs. A pelican glides into the frame below the tip of one whale’s lunging jaw.

    The Friday photo got me interested. Then on Saturday, a fellow lap swimmer added some compelling personal details.

    “We were diving out near Moss Landing the other morning,” he related. “The whales were so thick we could smell their breath.”

    “What did it smell like?”

    He laughed. “Anchovies! They all had anchovy breath. There was an old-timer with us on the boat. He told us Monterey used to smell like that all the time, only 10 times more so.”

    With luck, the great anchovy feast is still going on. If so, a drive to Moss Landing is highly recommended. Turn off at one of the beach exits, park, hike up the sand berm, and gaze seaward. If the humpbacks are there, you should see synchronized blasts of spray, glistening black backs, and the graceful curve of descending flukes.

    On Sunday afternoon, pods of whales were visible all along the coast. Some were far out in the bay; others so near shore you could count the blows. The timing of the blows suggested the whales were working in concert. The sea would be flat for a time; then a big group of whales would surface and exhale in unison blasts.

    The blows shot into the air all at once, bringing a couple of images to mind. One was a water show I saw once at Butchart Gardens on Vancouver Island. To orchestral accompaniment, spot-lit fountains of water rose and fell synchronously as if beckoned to life by a sorcerer’s wand. It was like a scene from Disney’s “Fantasia.”

    The simultaneous blasts also reminded me of battling man-of-war movies from the 1950s. Wreathed in smoke and belching flame, squadrons of French and English frigates would blast each other with salvos of cannon fire. The first salvo would splash down short of the target, raising 15 or 20 columns of spray. The whales looked like that.

    Why were they exhaling together? I know humpbacks “sing,” but I doubt that explains it. I’m thinking “lunge feeding” requires cetacean choreography. I can imagine a circle of whales surrounding the anchovies, diving down beneath them, then driving them to the surface for easy gulping. That’s how it looked from the beach, anyway.

    Much closer to the action on Sunday were the whale watch vessels, fishing rigs and charter sloops that tacked back and forth among the various humpback pods. The fleet also included smaller boats too frail-looking to approach feeding whales.

    “Check out that little Zodiac,” I said, handing off the binoculars. “They get any closer, they’ll get flipped.”

    “Or be overcome by anchovy breath.”

    Also very close to the smorgie were countless sea birds that formed a whirling, clattering, frenzied cloud over the scene. Flying low over the water, the birds were so numerous and thick they looked like flowing corpuscles. At intervals, pelicans would wheel up out of the avian cyclone to splash-bomb into the feeding whale vortex.

    As the afternoon waned, the feeding pods grew fewer and farther between, and several charter boats peeled off to return to their harbors. One last big group of humpbacks surrounded a signal buoy just seaward of the harbor mouth.

    “The anchovies must like that buoy,” my friend said.

    I trained the binoculars on the buoy as whales spouted, rolled, lunged, breeched and dove all around it. “That would be the place to watch from,” I mused. “But how do we get out there?”

    “I’ll call Ishmael.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on July 25, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views


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