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California and the West

Whale of a Chance

Humpbacks, Closer to Coast Than Usual, Offer Impressive Views

June 10, 1998|RICHARD WARCHOL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — The gentle, 25-ton giant twisted and spouted for its admirers aboard the Vanguard.

In behavior that research biologists say is becoming increasingly common, the 50-foot-long humpback whale spent a half-hour getting friendly with its visitors--poking its head out of the 600-foot-deep waters off Santa Cruz Island, opening its plate-sized eye to watch the watchers and even rolling over like a dog looking for a good scratch.

"This is what it's all about, right here," said Jacob Emmons, a naturalist trailing the whales Tuesday. "Breathtaking."

Though humpback and blue whales are often found feeding near the Channel Islands off Ventura, they rarely come as close to the Southern California mainland as the huge-but-docile creatures have this year.

Usually found near the more distant and remote Santa Rosa or San Miguel islands, humpbacks this year have been found feeding on shrimp-like krill and small fish as close to shore as Santa Cruz and Anacapa islands.

For nature lovers, it is a rare treat. A 2 1/2-hour boat ride from Ventura Harbor, instead of the regular four-hour trip, is usually all it takes to see the whales. For Ventura tourism officials, this year's short hop to whale territory is presenting a better-than-usual selling point for summer visitors.

"A lot of people forget the world of marine life that's right off the coastline of Ventura," said Debbie Giles, spokeswoman for the Ventura Visitors and Convention Bureau. "It's a nice bonus to anyone coming out to see the islands in the next couple of weeks."

Tuesday's boat riders saw, in addition to the whales, leaping dolphins, sea lions, minke whales and California brown pelicans.

Research biologists familiar with the whale population in the Santa Barbara Channel warn against reading too much into the humpbacks' choice of feeding ground this summer.

Scientists are reluctant to credit El Nino weather patterns for the whales' appearance closer to the Ventura coast. Instead, routine variations in water temperatures and currents have brought the food supply--and hence, the humpbacks--closer to shore, said research biologist John Calambokidis, who works for Cascadia Research, a nonprofit organization based in Olympia, Wash.

Regardless of what is bringing the mammals closer to the coast, the humpback population seems to be on the rise. Identifying humpbacks by the detailed pigmentation markings on the underside of their tails, the organization estimates that the population is rising by about 5% to 6% a year, Calambokidis said.

The organization, which studies whale populations and behavior under federal grants, estimates that there are now about 800 humpbacks summering in the waters off the California coast.

The whales return each winter from Mexico and Hawaii to the same region, and seem to move north up the coast of California, Oregon and Washington as the summer progresses, biologists say.

The giant humpback's half-hour display Tuesday did not come immediately. It was three hours after the 65-foot vessel left Ventura Harbor at 8 a.m. before the first whale--an impressive juvenile humpback--appeared.

And that was only after Capt. Glen Galbraith turned up the Vivaldi, specifically the Trio for Woodwinds and Flute Concerto in A minor.

"Blue whales like Beethoven, gray whales--travelers--get trucking music and dolphins get rock 'n roll," Galbraith said.

The young whale kept his distance. But soon after, two giants were spotted off the vessel's bow.

Prevented by law from moving in too close to the giant mammals, Galbraith let the boat drift about 100 yards away. It was the whale who chose to pay the special visit.

So close did the whale come that watchers could see the large, wart-like bumps along its jaw. Each connected to a cluster of nerves, the bumps, or "tubercles," grow a single hair that scientists suggest may act much like a cat's whiskers, helping the whale detect small movements or vibrations in the water.

When Cascadia Research began studying humpbacks in 1986, rarely would the whales come so close to research or whale-watching boats. And they almost never hung around.

But increasingly--with whale watching replacing the whaling that was banned three decades ago--such encounters are becoming more common, Calambokidis said.

"This is basically the natural curiosity you'd expect to see in such an intelligent and social animal," he said. "Now they seem to happen every other trip."

To those aboard the Vanguard, the reasoning behind the whales' closer-than-normal appearance didn't much matter.

They were there. And that was all they needed to know.

"You feel very inspired when you see an animal of this size and majesty and stature," said Emmons, the Vanguard's naturalist. "There's definitely other intelligent life forms out there."

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