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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Whale Watchers Won't Be Blue

July 16, 1999|MATT SURMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If ever there was a sea monster, this is it.

It slices through the water in sections, too huge to be seen all at once. First, the massive arch of its back emerges from the water. Next, its comparatively tiny dorsal fin eases by. And then, its 15-foot tail shoots out of the water and hovers for a few seconds, as if waving goodbye before slipping back down below.

"It's beautiful," said naturalist Jacob Emmons, awed by the sight of the mammoth blue whale on a recent excursion around the Channel Islands. "This is the best site for whale watching in the whole world."

The blue whale, at 70 to 90 feet long and weighing up to 150 tons, is the largest animal ever to exist on earth. And while blue whale sightings in the area have increased since the early 1990s, a krill boom this summer has brought even more of the mammoth mammals into view, as they gorge on the minuscule shrimp-like creatures near Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands.

The area's waters, perhaps because of the La Nina weather pattern, are unseasonably chilly, the perfect condition to make the water nutrient-rich. The reddish-brown patches of krill, visible on the water's surface, attract squid, whales, sharks--and plenty of spectators.

"You see huge clouds of krill, and little tiny squid feed on them, and then you see blue sharks feeding on them," Emmons said. "It's the cycle."

The Santa Barbara Channel is almost perfectly suited for whale sighting. The ocean topography helps push cold water up to the surface where nutrients can thrive. In addition, a transition zone between the cold nutrient-rich water of the north and equatorial currents from the south draws both northern and southern species.

Scientists estimate that about 2,000 blue whales spend the summer off the coast of California, which accounts for a large portion of the world's blue whale population, said Eric Solomon,, manager of the sea center at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. No one is sure how many count the Santa Barbara Channel as a vacation spot.

And although no one knows for certain--individual blues are hard to track because they have so few distinguishing marks--scientists believe that whales follow a general migration pattern to the equator. They return to the colder seas after birthing in the warm tropical waters of the south, meandering back as they follow their food source.

Spectators aboard a sightseeing boat Tuesday didn't see their first whale immediately. Even so, after leaving Ventura Harbor at 8 a.m. it took only an hour and a half before Capt. Glen Galbraith spotted a spout, a plume of spray shooting 20 to 30 feet into the air.

"There she blows!" he shouted--and the hunt was on.

The whale spotted Tuesday was shy, slipping by the boat for a couple minutes before steering clear and disappearing into the deep. But it left a gift: the lingering smell of whale breath expelled through its spout.

Unlike gray whales, which cling close to shore, blues for the most part prefer the cold open waters where they are harder to track. So they remain very much a mystery.

"A scientist would be kidding you if they said they know why blues do what they do," Solomon said. "The bottom line is they're not very understood."

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