The waters were smooth and the wildlife happy for it.
I am very fortunate to have friends who own a private boat, and when they organized a spontaneous whale watching afternoon one day in mid-January when the weather was nice, we enthusiastically came on board. The clouds came in faster than expected and the wind was a little chilly motoring out of the bay, but it was a lovely day to be on the water.
We paused at the bait docks, as wildlife loves to congregate there to look for an easy snack or a safe place to lounge. We enjoyed watching the California sea lions (Zalophus californianus) sleeping on the dock, with a number of babies and their moms all nestled together. Most of them didn’t even open their eyes to look at us as we approached. Scattered on the docks were over 50 Double-crested Cormorants, several Snowy Egrets, gulls and a couple of very relaxed Brown Pelicans. Some of the birds were poking their beak through the dock cracks, hoping to catch a bait fish swimming below.
As we were entering the ocean, we could see a large flock of birds in the distance, circling a patch of water and diving into it. We went over to investigate and soon had close up views of Brown Pelicans diving into the water. I was excited to spot a Brown Booby diving for fish, as this species is not common around San Diego. Gulls also circled or sat on the water alongside Doube-crested Cormorants. Common dolphins swam all around us, and we saw a number of moms with a youngster. None of the dolphins seemed interested in playing around the boat; perhaps they were too focused on feeding. Some years there have been few fish for wildlife and it has affected breeding and raising young, such as spring of 2015 when over 1800 emaciated baby sea lions washed ashore in California, so it was very encouraging to see so much feeding actvity this afternoon.
We had a very special encounter with wildlife while we were watching all the activity around us. Suddenly one of the sea birds flew to the boat and landed on the front of the boat where we were all standing or sitting! The white bird with black legs calmly stood there, only a few feet from us and posed while we took photos. I was not sure what species it was, but I knew that I had never seen one before. After a few minutes the bird calmly flew off and I never spotted it again. One passenger thought that perhaps it was the spirit of her mother, as her mother’s ashes had been spread at sea. When I got home, I researched the bird and identified it as a Black-legged Kittiwake. While these birds are common close to the Arctic (such as Alaska and Iceland), they are rare around San Diego. They spend most of their non-breeding time at sea and will approach fishing boats; perhaps the bird was hoping for a fishy handout from us. I thought it was icing on the cake that not only did we have a bird visitor, but that it was a rarely seen species in these waters!
After half an hour of watching the feeding frenzies, we went further out into the ocean in search of Gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus). This is the time of their annual winter migration going south from the Arctic to Mexico, where they give birth and mate. As we moved westward, we saw a large commercial whale watching boat perhaps a mile further out hurriedly move south, so we angled our course to end up south of that boat. From quite a distance we could see occasional spouts near the horizon. As we approached the whales, we saw that there were at least three whales traveling together, and at least one of the whales was heavily encrusted with what looked like barnacles. We stopped and watched, and the other nearby boats also idled as we waited for the whales to resurface after each dive. We saw side-by-side multiple spouts several times, and then the flukes as the whales, which grow to about 45 feet long (longer than a school bus), dove to the bottom. As they were slowly approaching our boat, however, another large whale watching boat motored in at full speed, chasing the whales away. While that boat chased after them, most of the other boats did not. We’ve always had the best close encounters when we stop and wait for the whales, as most wildlife does not like to be chased.
Motoring back into the bay in the late afternoon, we observed more birds but not the feeding frenzies we had seen earlier. I spotted several new bird species as we entered the bay, and flocks of cormorants flying in single file were heading out to sea.
PHOTO BLOG & SLIDESHOW: FAVORITES OF A WHALE WATCH
Click on any image or its arrow ⇒ button lower right for enhanced views of the photos. Photos by Barbara Swanson.