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Blue Whales Offering Big Show Off O.C.

Fans are spotting up to 10 of them on any given day. Increase in sightings may be due to a shift in food.

August 22, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Numerous sightings of a certain 50-ton mammal have made summer school a little more exciting for hundreds of Orange County students attending class at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point.

Students who usually spend two hours aboard the institute's Sea Explorer collecting plankton samples are suddenly pleading with their teachers to ditch the lesson plan.

"They're all saying they can learn about plankton some other time," said Mike Bursk, a marine biologist and captain of the Sea Explorer. "They just want to check out the blue whales. A lot of people realize this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance."

And there have been plenty to check out the last six weeks. On any given day, whale watchers in boats are spotting up to 10 of the endangered whales.

Whale experts say the increase in sightings along the Orange County coast is due to a shift in available food. The giant mammals typically travel 30 miles off the coast between San Clemente and Catalina islands. But Bursk said a large supply of shrimplike krill near the shore seems to be changing the blue whale's migration pattern.

"Blue whales are no dummies," he said. "There's been two good crops in a row of their favorite food. They're simply swooping in and taking advantage. They're coming in closer because they're getting proper nutrients, proper sunlight and proper currents." So far, however, the spike in blue whale sightings hasn't translated into a business boom for whale-watch boat operators.

Dave Anderson, who has operated a dolphin- and whale-watching boat off Dana Point for nine years, said the viewer-friendly whale migration simply hasn't received much attention.

"When people find out about what's going on off the coast, it helps us," he said. "But if people don't know, it's not much of a phenomenon."

Hunted nearly to extinction by the 1960s, blue whales have made a modest comeback off California, but remain rare in other oceans. Recent estimates put the population worldwide at about 12,000. About 2,000 to 3,000 of the mammals congregate each summer along California. The mammals often grow to more than 100 feet.

One day last summer, Bursk said he saw 15 blue whales from his boat. The most he has seen this summer at one time is eight. He said that last week a 65-foot blue whale stopped alongside his boat before taking a breath and disappearing underwater.

"They are indifferent to us," he said. "Gray whales are usually shy and they'll avoid you, while the blues are so inquisitive, they'll come right up next to you."

The Ocean Institute books educational field trips during the week and offers marine wildlife cruises on weekends. Anderson's boat, Captain Dave's Dolphin Safari, makes daily excursions during the summer.

But not every blue whale junkie heads out to sea. Some have been spotted atop the bluffs overlooking Dana Point Harbor with binoculars. "It's like watching a football game from the nosebleeds," Bursk said.

"But to catch a glimpse of these incredible mammals, it's worth it."

The show isn't expected to last much longer. The blue whales started heading north last year in late August.

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