SANTA BARBARA — One of Earth's largest creatures penetrates the surface amid a massive cloud of krill, its gaping mouth opening as if hinged, devouring a huge swallow of chowder. The tiny red crustaceans don't stand a chance. They're gone in a whooshing gulp that leaves passengers aboard the Condor Express spellbound.
"This is unbelievable," said Ian Lloyd, 54, a visitor from London who was aboard with his wife and daughter. "I read when I was a little boy that blue whales were virtually extinct and now, 40 years later, here they are."
Dozens of them.
Taking advantage of unusual ocean conditions, blue whales, along with humpback whales and some fin whales, have transformed the outer Santa Barbara Channel into a fantasy land for marine mammal enthusiasts.
Sightings of the gigantic cetaceans are up because the krill patches they feed on, which are usually submerged, are often being found at or near the surface.
But what is a boon to watchers can also be of danger to the whales, particularly the larger blue whales that surface close to and in shipping lanes between the Channel Islands and the mainland.
"I always refer to it as putting your dog's dish in the middle of Highway 101," said Mat Curto, captain of the Condor Express, which runs from Santa Barbara's Sea Landing and is the only vessel making daily excursions to the outer channel. "If the food is in the middle of a major highway, eventually an accident's going to happen."
Known collisions involving blue whales -- the smaller, quicker humpback whales are less vulnerable -- occur at a rate of less than one per year, but scientists believe the number of actual ship strikes to be much higher. And because of present conditions, some fear a repeat of 2007, when krill appeared in the shipping lanes for weeks, and at least four blue whales were struck and killed in the channel.
That episode rekindled debate over what should be done to reduce threats to the estimated 2,000 blue whales of an overall global population of 10,000 that feed off California each summer. The largest concentration of blue whales, which can measure more than 90 feet and weigh up to 150 tons, is often in the Santa Barbara Channel.
Jim Lecky, director of the Office of Protected Resources for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries service, said blue whales do not face imminent danger as a population and that their numbers are slowly increasing from year to year. However, an environmental group recently filed a 60-day notice of its intent to sue, alleging that the federal government had violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to protect blue whales off the California coast.
The Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara filed the notice against the fisheries service, which operates as part of the atmospheric administration, claiming the agency had not fully implemented a blue whale recovery plan finalized in 1998.
That plan asked for suggestions on reducing ship collisions.
Lecky said the complex recovery plan, which requires identification of threats and recovery strategies, is advisory by nature and does not carry regulatory mandates or a specific time frame.
The fisheries service has funded research currently underway in the channel, but there are no immediate plans to alter shipping routes or implement speed restrictions. Ship crews are asked to voluntarily slow down when whales are known to be close to or in the lanes.
"Do any of them slow down? No," Curto said.
The lanes and a separation zone between them represent a five-mile-wide swath to and from Los Angeles. Altering them, as was done on the East Coast to try to protect critically endangered Northern Atlantic right whales, would be costly to the shipping industry and there is no guarantee it would save whales.
John Calambokidis, founder of Cascadia Research in Olympia, Wash., has been identifying areas in which whales enter shipping lanes and using suction tags to study their behavior. One thing he's already discovered is that the blue whales seem to be spending most of their time at night close to the surface, making them more vulnerable. He said he hopes to determine how whales react to approaching vessels, if they can hear them and whether they take evasive action or surface in panic.
Meanwhile, the whale-watching business couldn't be better. The Condor Express boasts a 100% success rate since May 1.
On a recent gray August day, two miles beyond the shipping lanes, cetaceans are visible in every direction.
Blue whales lunge-feed vertically on half-inch krill. An occasional fin surfaces in the distance. Humpback whales interact with passengers by slapping pectoral fins and revealing their flukes, often in unison.
"They have a real interest in whale watchers," Curto said of the humpback whales. "And I find that the more the whale watchers react to the whale, the more the whale will react to the whale watchers."
There are about 100 watchers aboard the 88-foot jet-powered catamaran, pointing and cheering. "On a scale of one to 10? I'd rate this an 11," said Cody Martin, 13, of El Segundo.
Said Charlene Dorais, aboard with her husband and four children: "We just moved here from Michigan and never dreamed all this was here. To find out this is in my backyard . . . it's just phenomenal."