A green path of small bubbles and froth marked the passage of the adult humpback whale beneath the 75-foot Condor Express. The marine mammal, measuring roughly half the size of the boat, had to be swimming near the surface to make that trail, I thought, yet it avoided the catamaran’s double hulls with obvious ease.
Often described as “acrobatic” whales—they are known for flinging themselves out of water in a still-unexplained behavior called breaching—humpbacks impress me with their dexterity, grace, and sociability. While other great whales, like the relatively smaller grays and minkes, also breach, none have been observed to turn or dive with similar fluidity. However, no other whale, large or small, is equipped with the wing-like pectoral flippers that usually stretch a third of the humpback’s body.
The 15-foot-long flippers, which permit the whale tight turns and underwater agility for feeding and mating, have a serrated pattern of bulges along their leading edges. Reminiscent of an uneven saw, humpback flippers boast an unusually high energy efficiency and have been promoted as a model for wind turbine blades.
On this day of calm water and cloudless sky, we observers were treated to the special companionship of about a dozen humpbacks, several hundred dolphins of various species, and a sprinkling of seabirds and sea lions. At one point, three different species of dolphin took turns riding the Condor’s bow wave—always a marvelous sight. The Santa Barbara Channel, often a place of quick, fierce winds, was on its best behavior.
Humpbacks, an endangered species that whale expert John Calambokidis said uses the channel “for a significant period of time” in spring, summer, and even into fall, were the main attraction. On the trip to Santa Cruz Island they showed up in groups of two adults and a youngster as well as solitary foragers. These healthy looking seafarers were a fraction of the 700-750 humpbacks Calambokidis estimated to be seasonal visitors to the area.
When some whales exhaled through massive dual blowholes, a pitched whistle or trumpeting sound could be heard. This was a form of communication, according to our captain. Humpback males sing a type of cetacean “song” so the idea did not seem far-fetched.
A few whales spouted so close to the boat that a cloud of fish-tinged breath wafted over us. One adult rolled on its side to glance at the humans who watched with awe its fearless performance. We could count the knobs running from the blowholes to the tip of its upper jaw. Though they looked like old-fashioned rivets attached to glistening steel plates, the bumps were actually hair follicles.
Glints from living gold caught my eye as I studied the channel’s dark waters. A confection of reddish-brown krill, each an inch or so long, rode the surface around the almost-stationary boat. Swarms of these shrimplike crustaceans and schools of small fish are the chief prey of the whales that forage off the northern Channel Islands each spring.
Krill play a major role in the life of the world’s oceans in part because under normal conditions there are so many of them. Microbiologist Donald Reinhardt estimates that “billions of krill are consumed each second in the oceans and seas” due to their crucial place at the base of the marine nutrition web. They browse on microscopic plants, providing for the protein needs of larger animals, which may eventually be eaten by humans.
Humpbacks, which are baleen whales, consume krill. They do this by plunging through a swarm and, aided by pleated throat grooves, capturing tons of seawater and organisms in their mouths. Their tongues expel the water through a stiff sieve of fibrous material, known as baleen, attached to the upper jaw. The krill are separated and swallowed, to the tune of about one to 1.5 tons a day for each adult.
Knowing that the planet’s largest creatures depend on some of its smallest is reason for reflection. Oil, which is composed of many chemicals, is known to have multiple effects on whales and dolphins, including damage to vital organs leading to reproductive failure or death, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA is largely silent on the effects of oil on krill, though it recognized the animal’s importance by banning its commercial harvest along the West Coast last year.
What if the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe had taken place in the channel instead of the Gulf of Mexico? We have many of the same ingredients: offshore platforms, some of which extract gas and oil from water depths of more than 1,000 feet; a history of spills; even the 1969 blowout. How would we protect the coast, much less the bounty offshore?
Over the nearly three decades I’ve lived in Goleta, I’ve often taken to the channel in search of whales and other sea life. I’ve always returned feeling renewed, but never more so than after the life-affirming experience of this recent trip. Let’s try harder to keep it that way for all creatures great and small, present and future.