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SPORTS WEEKEND | THE OUTDOORS

Blue Whales Make Their Return to Channel Islands

August 11, 2000|PETE THOMAS

Nature question: What has a tongue as big as an African elephant?

Answer: an adult blue whale, whose tongue can weigh as much as six tons.

We're telling you this because an estimated 50 to 60 blue whales recently have taken up residence off the north end of Santa Rosa Island.

The Condor out of Santa Barbara's Sea Landing has been making daily runs to the area, enabling passengers a crow's-nest view of the largest creature to inhabit our planet.

Yes, at 80 to 90 feet long and weighing as much as 150 tons, blue whales are much larger than any dinosaur. Yet they feed on some of the smallest creatures: mostly planktonic crustaceans called krill.

Large portions of the vast Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary typically become rich with krill during the summer. Though the whale-watching public has been slow to catch on, dozens of blue whales--often accompanied by humpbacks--discovered this in 1992 and have been returning for extended stays almost every summer since.

They're believed to be part of a "California population" of blues numbering about 2,200--about half of the world's population. The California stock utilizes a vast area from as far south as Costa Rica to Northern California and as many as 200 are believed to take advantage of the nutrient-rich waters within the sanctuary.

So accessible are these whales--about a three-hour boat ride from Santa Barbara Harbor-- that scientists, trying to learn more about the mammals and their habitat, flock to the area whenever there are enough to ensure frequent encounters.

That time is now, says Fred Benko, the Condor's captain, who is usually first to locate the sleek, beautiful blue cetaceans, and whose 88-foot vessel has been among them more than any other.

The reason the season is late in getting started--blue whales typically begin to show in late May or early June--seemingly has to do with another cetacean: the orca, or killer whale.

"Killer whales came into the channel in early June and terrorized everybody," Benko says. "Not only did they scare the blues off [to areas near Point Conception and Monterey], they ripped through dolphins and tossed them around, and tore a piece of the tail fluke off a humpback whale. They also ate a harbor seal right next to the boat."

For the time being, the orcas are elsewhere and the blues are happy as clams, passing up to a ton of krill over their six-ton tongues as many as four times a day.

"You can always tell when they're feeding because they get really friendly," Benko says. "Their stomachs can only hold a ton at a time, so while they're waiting to digest they get real friendly."

HOT BITES

* The albacore season, like the ocean, has been up and down, and Southland anglers probably won't come close to matching last year's record haul of 254,983 fish aboard commercial party boats.

Again, this week, the San Diego day boats put their anglers on huge schools of albacore 50 to 60 miles out. The dock total soared Monday and again Tuesday, but on Wednesday the schools of tuna proved elusive again.

"That has been so characteristic of this whole season," says Philip Friedman of 976-TUNA, a phone service that monitors summertime tuna fishing.

Friedman, who is giving free e-mail reports (subscribe by contacting p976tuna@aol.com), said fishing is excellent for albacore and big bluefin--many over 100 pounds--aboard multi-day boats fishing as close as 115 miles.

He also said those fish should move north within range of the day boats, but he has said this before and frustrated day anglers are still waiting. "The day boats have had a tough season," he acknowledged.

Indeed, according to Department of Fish and Game records, one-day counts through July totaled 44,000 albacore. Last year through July, the one-day haul was 91,200.

* Local waters have not been so alive, or as colorful, all summer. Brilliantly-colored dorado are still illuminating floating kelp paddies off Orange County, and with them are larger and more powerful yellowtail.

That's the good news. The bad news for fishermen is, too many people know about this and the party boats are getting crowded. The Freelance on Sunday had more than 80 people and they hooked about 80 dorado, but only landed 34. They hooked 60-plus yellowtail to land only eight.

The dorado are still running six to 10 pounds. The yellowtail are averaging 12 to 20 pounds.

BIG-MONEY MARLIN

It wasn't nearly as impressive as the 800-pound black and blue marlin weighed in a few days before the event, but Hank Fohring's 460-pound blue marlin was worth a lot more.

Fohring, of Seal Beach, and Mark Rayor of the Baja California town of Buena Vista, claimed first place in last week's inaugural Bisbee's East Cape Offshore Tournament, headquartered at Hotel Palmas de Cortez. The two split $60,995. However, the second-place team won $109,985 because it had entered all the side jackpots.

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