(or, Random Musings and Recaps by Capt. Ryan)
Taking Stock of Summer 2017
Summer is technically scheduled to pass us on September 22nd, but we’ve already let go of our busy days and throngs of visitors for a noticeably “Fallish” pace here at Newport Coastal Adventure. And so with that, we can begin a summer recap!
Our best whale watching was front loaded in June, as it was in 2016. From June 2nd to July 15th, we counted sightings of whales every single day. Humpbacks, Fins, Blues, Minkes, Sei, and even a stray Gray.
Grays, Grays, Everywhere…
The long train runnin’ of Gray Whales is getting closer to the end, but it’s certainly NOT over yet! Every year of the migration is different with regards to timing and flow of whales, and this year particularly we are enjoying a steady stream of action. In 2016 the migration stalled pretty hard for a spell in the first half of April after a robust early northbound push. In the current season, the pace of the whales moving north is nicely spaced out, and during this week we have already seen a good flow of mom and baby whales, which should sustain us and build through the end of the month before tapering off for good in the first half of May.
So what else stands out about this year’s gray migration? A few things….
Lots of early born babies!
Gray whales are “supposed” to be born in Mexico, if all goes to plan. But sometimes babies are anxious to get swimming, and calves pop out early along the way. This year we encountered probably a dozen of these very small calves born en-route, swimming south very close to mom. This was really neat to see because as we flew drones over these pairs, you can see just how small these baby whales are, and how just days prior to us seeing them, they were still inside the womb! One of these encounters was just unreal, as a very curious baby gray whale turned away from its mom to come investigate our boat. What happened next was the highlight of our year so far.
This was one of our most exciting encounters EVER today! As we were watching a mom and baby gray whale, the baby turned away from its mom and swam right to our boat. The 45 foot long mom came to guide the baby back on course, right under us! The audio you hear is from our drone pilot and captain on the boat as this is happening live.
Posted by Newport Coastal Adventure on Sunday, January 8, 2017
Lots of “beach whales'”!
On the northbound migration, the whales are coming from a relaxing Mexico vacation, and sometimes along the Newport Beach coast, they stop to relax a little more. Our sandy beaches attract grays looking for a “pit stop” to roll around on the shallow bottom and probably relieve some itching and fatigue. This can be really fun to see, and the last few months we certainly had more of this activity off Newport Beach than last year. Again, some drone video, and a few stills.
A whale visits the beach! We kicked off the start of the northbound gray whale migration today with this animal playing in the shallows at Big Corona Beach.
Posted by Newport Coastal Adventure on Thursday, February 16, 2017
Lots of great whale-dolphin interaction!
This comes down to being in the right place at the right time, but also the fact is we have a ton of dolphin off of our coast. And so when migrating grays run smack into a middle of a dolphin pod, they become very animated and playful! A few of these encounters were extraordinary, and again, captured perfectly by my drone.
What happens when you add a pod of dolphins to a pair of whales? A whole lot of fun!
Posted by Newport Coastal Adventure on Monday, February 27, 2017
We are seeing some really beautiful interactions among whales and dolphins recently. This morning was the best! Three miles off Laguna Beach.
Posted by Newport Coastal Adventure on Saturday, March 18, 2017
Arguably, the best is still yet to come. The next 20 days will hold some fantastic mom and baby northbound sightings. Stay updated with the latest on our Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/newportcoastaladventure/
A December to Remember!
Yes indeed. December 2016 will go down forever as one of my most memorable whale watching months. Depending on who you ask, the HOLY GRAIL of Southern California whale watching is either a sighting of Sperm Whales or Killer Whales. Admittedly, Sperm Whales are easily more rare, but typically not as charismatic or “watchable” as Killer Whales. Before December 2016 I had seen Killer Whales locally three times but never a Sperm Whale. In my life! So imagine what it was like in a 18 hour period encountering BOTH of these… it was mind blowing. Pictures, please….
Yes, there was more than one. There were dozens. We couldn’t really count them all, but someone said at least 40. It was amazing watching these crazy looking creatures pass by the Orange County coastline as the sun set.
The next morning….
We are then graced by a pod of the CA51A Transient Killer Whales. This is my first time seeing this particular pod, but I have seen one of these whale’s mom before, in January 2015!
December got even better, because on TWO MORE occasions we saw Killer Whales, of a totally different pod and unrelated type: the Offshore Killer Whale. And there were around 50 in these pods seen December 19th and 20th.
Thanks to my friend Shane Keena Photography for the above photo.
I didn’t even mention November 30th yet, which was when we first saw these offshore Killer Whales, because this was supposed to be a December post… but since I did just mention it, here’s some pictures from that day before December 1st.
Well of course, now everyone is asking us: “Can we go see Killer Whales, too?” I have to remind them that I have been on boats off Newport Beach my whole life and it wasn’t until 2015 that I saw my first local Killer Whale. You’ve just got to be lucky. Generally speaking, luck favors those whale watchers who go as much as they possibly can from November through February- historically speaking most local sightings of Orcinus orca occur in that span. Good luck!
Well, it’s Fall…
And what does that mean for whale watching!? We are setting our clocks back 1 hour tonight, and while the rest of the country is turning on the furnace, we are looking forward to a week ahead with temperatures as high as 79 degrees on the coast here in Newport Beach. Truth be told, although Fall isn’t the most consistent time of year for whales off Newport, it’s absolutely my favorite time of year to be on a boat.
Southern California enjoys many high pressure and warm days October through December because of a local wind event known as the “Santa Anas”. These winds give us two great benefits when out on a boat: warm and dry air blowing in from the desert, and a calm sea. It makes for some of the most blissful days of the year, at least for this local.
It’s been a week since we’ve seen a whale, but our dolphin interactions have been top notch! I think I took one of my favorite photos just today of a mom and calf common dolphin as they jumped together in unison.
Here’s a photo from last November, of a humpback jumping on a beautiful Fall day right off the shores of Newport Beach:
The sunsets also are something to behold:
Yep, we sure do love it here, this time of year…. And our Gray Whales are just leaving Alaska right about now, and will be here in a month!
Tangled up in (the) Blue
Today marked our THIRD instance in the past year of finding and identifying an entangled humpback whale, and then coordinating its rescue. Previous encounters with these whales in distress were on October 30th 2015 and August 6th 2016. Specifically, these humpback whales had lines, floats, and probably steel traps stuck on them belonging to crab fishermen.
Whales in CA waters have been having a real problem in recent years with getting tangled; in 2015 alone there were 48 separate cases on the West Coast. The long term average was only 8 per year from 2000-2012.
Today’s entanglement was the worst we have seen! I flew my drone and was astonished to see 4 crab floats stuck very tightly to the body of this humpback. The whale was acting very irregularly, making long dives of 6 to 9 minutes long, and then only coming up for a couple of breaths. For the first 45 minutes, I couldn’t even get close enough with the drone or boat to see how it was tangled. But when I finally did I snapped these photos:
This particular entanglement is the worst because the line clearly is stuck through the whale’s mouth. That makes it a very difficult point to access for the rescue team’s knives, as well as obstructing the whale’s ability to feed. This whale looked skinny: who knows how long it has been tangled for. In addition, the right pectoral flipper of the whale seems to be pinned against its body by the lines. A very complex entanglement.
We stayed with the whale for 5 hours until help could arrive. The National Marine Fisheries Service(NMFS) is a government agency responsible for managing marine mammals. Justin Viezbicke is the local coordinator who works for NMFS and he met us at the whale with his team. While they had several hours remaining in the day to attempt to cut lines, the whale proved very difficult to work with, only at the surface for short periods of time. The team gathered some underwater video which could be helpful if a future attempt is made for disentanglement. But the sad fact of the matter is that disentangling a 35 foot long 40,000-pound animal is extremely difficult and dangerous. This whale is in need of serious help if it is to survive.
However, sometimes whales are able to free themselves. Our tangled humpback that we sighted on August 8th showed up again about a month later, still tangled, but not as bad. Then over the course of a week she freed herself from the line! This is a picture of that whale, “Scarlett”, taken aboard our boat.
It’s always so sad to see these huge animals struggling to move, burdened and tangled in the mess made by man. I hope that the whale I found and stayed with today can be located again to be worked on. Only by some miracle will it be able to free itself.
Return of the Rissos and MIA Blues
Finally, a Risso’s Dolphin(our first)! Since we started business in December of 2014, the Eastern Pacific Ocean has experienced one of its warmest “El Nino” climate phases in recorded history, with water temperatures averaging 5 degrees above normal. This change in water condition has brought us some wonderful sightings: a huge increase in humpback whales, ETP Killer Whales, Pilot Whales, and Hammerhead Sharks! HOWEVER, one local animal that it shooed away was the Risso’s Dolphin, an animal for whose primary prey item, squid, needs cooler water. Risso’s are pretty neat: a very large dolphin, big dorsal fin, and mostly white with a rounded face. So on August 22nd I was excited to spot a small pod of them 5 miles off Newport Beach. Since then we have heard of numerous sightings around Catalina Island of larger pods (even of a pack of killer whales eating one), and I would bet this isn’t our last sighting this year.
In other news…. Yesterday, on August 31st we found our first blue whale since July 28th, essentially going the whole month of August without a sighting of this species. We’re glad that’s behind us! We also saw the same whale today so that is great news! Consider that last August, we had blue whale sightings 14 out of 31 days. As a whale watching captain, I am keenly interested in what brings animals to our location and what keeps them elsewhere. For the blue whale, the simple answer is, for the last month, they have found better places to feed. Unlike the gray whales which follow a strict and steady migration route along our coast, the blues are foraging in our waters May-October, and need to eat 3,000-5,000 pounds of krill a day! It’s essential to their survival to be where the food density is highest. Apparently it was slim pickings around Newport for August 2016.
The more complex answer about figuring why their prey item (krill) isn’t off Newport Beach involves some oceanographic and biological speculation. My friend Capt. Tom in Dana Point believes the lack of krill in our area has to do with a disruption in the thermocline, that essential ocean layer which separates warm surface water from the rest of the deep, cool water below. If the thermocline is not sharp, then the krill will not be as concentrated, leading the whales to look elsewhere. The good news is this is just a temporary ocean condition that has to do with the whim of the currents, so we are optimistic that with several days in a row now of blue whale sightings off Orange County, September will be a better month than August!
Below, our August 31st blue whale sighting
How do we do it?
How do we do what? FIND WHALES, of course! It’s not an easy task- requiring a concoction of hard work, luck, communication, and trained eyes. Often times, our passengers ask “Can’t you use radar/sonar to find the whales?”. Man, if it was that easy to just fire up some electronics. The answer is definitely no. Navigational electronics such as a radar or fishfinder/sonar have zero application for finding whales. Which brings me to my primary point: Our most important piece of electronic equipment on the boat is our radio!
The ocean, even just in front of Newport Beach, is a huge place. We are looking for animals that are 30-80 feet long, that hold their breath for up to 12 minutes at a time. There are miles and miles of water to cover. Thankfully, in Newport Beach we share the task of finding marine mammals with another company, Davey’s Locker/Newport Landing Whale Watching. Our relationship with the captains at these companies is extremely valuable, and we are constantly communicating over the radio about animals we see, or even just dividing up areas to search. In addition to communicating with boats from our same port, Newport Coastal Adventure especially works with whale watching boats leaving from Dana Point Harbor, 12 miles below us. Because of our fast boats, we have the flexibility of being able to go to where the Dana Point boats are finding whales- a significant advantage that has contributed to a lot of our success. I am so thankful for the cooperative attitude that whale watching captains have towards each other on the radio. At the end of the day, we are striving to make all of our passengers happy and hopefully thrilled with the sighting of whales and dolphins.
“Spouts and splashes” are two key giveaways that a trained whale watching captain’s eyes can pick out from all the other natural commotion on the ocean’s surface. We are always wearing sunglasses, and usually expensive polarized ones at that. Many times I see our passengers will be looking within just a hundred feet of the boat: our captains are always looking out at the maximum distance, squinting out at the horizon. We can see a dolphin pod from a mile away, and a whale spout over 3 miles distant at times. But for those days when we don’t have any leads on the radio, and we want a little further reach, nothing can beat the right pair of binoculars. We don’t carry any ordinary sort of “binos”- in fact we are the only company I know of that uses the very expensive image stabilized Fujinon 14×40. At over $1,000 a pair, it’s an investment, but one that pays off for our passengers almost every day.
Captain Ryan loves his Techno-Stabis! ^^^
Finally, some good old fashioned luck. Remember, finding whales is not unlike fishing: at the end of the day the animals can be unpredictable and you just gotta get lucky. I’ll take it any time! Although I will admit, one of the most fun parts of this job is the hunt: covering water, venturing into the unknown and putting in work for a reward to share with your passengers the beautiful creatures of the sea…
Losing a Friend
We were sad to learn today that a whale which washed up dead in Manhattan Beach last night was “Wally!” 🙁
Wally was a humpback whale who visited us for 6 weeks last summer (late June-early August) and was seen nearly every day, accompanied by his “friend” Wilma! Truly one of the most fun humpbacks we have ever encountered; he loved to jump and was very comfortable with us watching him. A lot of great moments with this whale for our customers! He will be missed!
It is not immediately certain what caused the death of Wally, but it is certainly possible it could have been old age. Wally was a 45 foot long fully grown humpback whale, and death certainly does happen in the ocean!
Here’s a few pictures of one of the best whales I have ever gotten to watch!
A New Boat for Us (And You!)
This past spring it was becoming apparent that demand for our trips was exceeding supply! It was time to make the investment in an additional boat for Newport Coastal Adventure. The only option considered of course, was a RIB- A Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boat, the kind we have already had so much success on! So why a RIB?
I have often heard them described as the “4x4s” of the ocean, in that, it’s an all-terrain shock absorbing high performance machine. Taking into account their size, these type of boats offer incredible stability, safety and performance. With the new addition, we wanted to step it up a notch and get a RIB that was even beefier than the one we currently operate. The model we decided on, the Zodiac Hurricane 733, is a legendary boat used by the US Navy and Coast Guard every day. In fact, our new boat has a history with the Navy SEALS in Hawaii as part of Seal Delivery Vehicle Team- 1!
With several months of customization and additional investment, we were very proud to unveil what is now the fastest Whale Watching boat in Orange County! At 24 feet long with twin Evinrude 150 hp motors, this boat almost flies and is extremely sturdy in choppy seas. It will do over 45 miles per hour!
Addressing our most “FAQ”
“What is the best time of day for Whale Watching?” MOST of you ask! It’s a reasonable question, considering we have three departure times spread throughout the day. And people also have the notion that the animals we are looking for are more “active” or “better” during certain times of the day. And although that can be true, it’s not at all something we can predict.
It’s important to remember that we are watching whales and dolphins, which are mammals. Which means every few minutes, they have to access the surface for air, 24/7, 365. Our principle “watching” occurs when they are simply breathing. What they do underwater is often a mystery to us. Occasionally, and depending on the species, we will see jumping or surface feeding- but its occurance depends on the whim of the animal’s behavior or ocean conditions.
So, the answer to the question “What’s the best time of day?” is… “When the weather is nicest!” It’s true: when the sea is the calmest, it makes spotting whales and dolphins much easier for our captains. And generally speaking, the weather is best in the morning. That makes our 9:00am and 11:30am departures statistically “better” than the 3:00pm. Sometimes though, we get really killer afternoons; I seem to recall taking this picture around 4:00pm:
And this was also on a 3:00pm trip:
I could go on and on. It’s luck of the draw, every day! If you want to try and game the weather though, you can look for sunny days forecast by the National Weather Service, here. And you’ll also want to check the wind forecast at Sailflow.com
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…
That’s right! It’s late April, and we’re now enjoying the grand finale of the Gray Whale migration, which means moms and babies. This is very special whale watching that occurs off of Newport Beach for a short window between approximately April 15th and May 15th. Baby gray whales, also known as calves, are born in January and February about 500 miles south of here, in Baja California. In Spring, these calves and their moms migrate north, often very close to shore, on their way to Alaskan feeding grounds. The gray whale migration is actually the longest of any mammal, either terrestrial or aquatic: up to 12,000 miles round trip!
In addition to the opportunity to see an adorable baby whale, these cow/calf pairs are often the most playful watchable gray whales of the year. It’s common along the shores of Newport and Laguna Beach to witness behaviors such as spyhopping, breaching, “sharking” as well as sand scrubbing!
Here’s a picture of a mom and baby spyhopping together from one of our trips last week:
And from two days ago, a calf jumped a dozen times. Look how close to shore!
And in case you’re wondering, this is what “sharking” looks like. It’s when a whale, usually grays, roll on their sides causing their pectoral and tail fins to stick above the water, like a shark!
Ok, well not really. But today was a pretty special day! FALSE KILLER WHALES AND SEA OTTER COMBO, BABY!
It started off towards the end of our 9am trip, when another captain radioed us to say he saw a “pilot whale” right off Newport Beach. I had a hard time believing him, as pilot whales are very rare and typically seen during periods of warmer waters. When the animal popped up in front of us, something didn’t seem right. It was black alright- but too slender to be a pilot whale. Then I looked towards the beach and saw all sorts of commotion- a whole pod of the “mystery” whales. We sped up to close the distance and I confirmed- FALSE KILLER WHALES! My first time seeing them, ever.
These critters are so cool- they look and sound unlike anything I’ve seen. They make intensely loud vocalizations that surround the air whenever they are close to the boat. I’ll let the pictures I took speak to their appearance.
We followed them from Newport Beach all the way to Dana Point.. where one gave birth right next to another whale watching boat we were with! We missed it by only 5 minutes!
LATER THAT DAY….
What an adorable sight! And again, a first for me. Sea Otters are very rare in Southern California- years pass between reported sightings. And this one was hanging out in the kelp forest at Crystal Cove, south of Newport Beach. Knocking two incredible species off my bucket list in one day, and getting to share in the rarity with my passengers… priceless!
Humpback Whale Boom!
As we wrap up 2015, what most notably stands out in our whale watching this year was humpback whales! Newport Beach whale watching has historically relied on blue whales for our summer and fall sightings. However, this year it was all about the humpbacks (in addition to a strong showing by our blue friends).
In order to back up my anecdotal observations, I looked at local whale sightings data online from years past. Another whale watching company in Newport and one in Dana Point post daily sightings logs. I found that in average year, humpback whales were sighted about 10 days out of 365 off the Orange County coast. But in 2015, the Newport Beach whale watching company saw humpbacks 108 days and the Dana Point whale watching company 98 days! An increase of 10x! (At Newport Coastal Adventure, we don’t post daily sightings… preferring just to give frequent photographic updates on our Facebook page)
Humpback whales are a lot of fun, often breaching, throwing their tails, or slapping their flippers. It made for some extraordinary sights off Newport Beach! In particular, we had a several humpbacks that we saw repeatedly, sometimes for weeks in a row. Two adults that another captain named “Wally and Wilma” were the most boat friendly whales I have ever seen.
So what caused the ten-fold increase in humpback whale sightings off Newport Beach? Whales are big, and they need to eat a lot of food- this is a big factor in making these whales show up where they do. The increased presence of anchovies off Newport Beach was certainly a reason for our good sightings. The 4″-5″ long fish were all over coastal Orange County this past year.
In addition to much higher concentrations of the whales food source locally, the humpback whale population is doing quite well! We saw a ton of smaller whales passing through Newport Beach, too, which makes scientists think that the smaller whales are extending their range as they are “pushed out” by mature individuals occupying more typical feeding grounds.
We look forward to many more awesome humpback whale encounters in 2016 off Newport Beach!
1 in 20,000 odds
Check out the above pictures… it’s of a Gray Whale seen and photographed by me two seasons in a row, right off Newport Beach! You might say, “OK, it’s the same whale, what’s the big deal?” The big deal is that Gray Whales off Orange County do not stay stationary, they are always moving on their migration! To be lucky enough to see the same whale twice, as over 20,000 of them pass by, is really neat.
Whale Watching Photography
A must bring for any passenger on our trips is a camera! Experiencing wild dolphins and whales can be the opportunity of a lifetime, and what better way to keep that memory vivid and lasting than by capturing it on film?
Most everybody these days has a smartphone with an embedded camera, so it seems there’s always a camera aboard. But will that be enough?
It depends! I’ve taken some pictures I’m really happy about just with an iPhone. Like this one:
Smart phone cameras typically get the job done just fine for dolphins if the subject is close. We sometimes get very friendly dolphins that love to play near the bow of the boat. You can take pictures just inches away from them!
Where smartphones become very limiting is when the subject is more than 20 feet away. Now we need a proper camera that has a telephoto lens to capture detail and action sufficiently. This makes whale photos taken on smart phones very uninteresting … no doubt underwhelming your audience you are trying to share your awesome memory with. Don’t be left saying “You had to be there!”
Whale pictures almost never turn out on smart phones for two reasons: it’s rare to get a glimpse of more than 1/10 of the whale’s body and they are 99% of the time further than 10 feet away.
Don’t let an incredible moment be reduced to photographic mush! I think we will agree what’s happening in the picture below (simultaneous jumping humpback whales) is a photographic opportunity of a lifetime, but it turned out as “mush”, even on an iPhone 6.
(photographed with a Canon Rebel DSLR paired with a basic 55-250mm lens, a $500 package)
And an even more proper camera would have done you better!
(photographed with a Canon 70d DSLR paired with an expensive 100-400mm lens, a $2,400 package)
By proper cameras I am talking about a “DSLR”- Which stands for a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera. Intimidating lingo, but we’re basically just talking about one of these:
From this camera you are getting several basic things:
1. Ability to optically zoom with the lens (opposed to digital zoom on smart phones and point and shoots which is just cropping of the sensor, leaving the image very grainy).
2.Multiple shots in a second! Some of these sound like machine guns when you hold down the shutter- very important to be able to capture at least 4 frames per second when photographing active animals.
3. High quality picture files resulting from sensors greater than 15 megapixels.
If you have a DSLR, bring it! It’s the only way to get pictures of whales you will be satisfied with.
What about GoPros?
GoPro cameras are not recommended for above water photography or video unless we’re really close to animals. This is because the camera’s default setting is for wide angle capture… anything more than 50 feet away will appear as a small speck.
However, GoPros are a great option for underwater captures or friendly dolphins riding our bow, like this picture taken with a GoPro:
Otherwise, nearly all the photographs featured on this website were taken with a Canon 70d and a Canon 100-400mm lens, and all were taken by me, Capt. Ryan, in our local Southern California waters.
If you’re interested in seeing some more great wildlife photography from the California Coast, check out the websites of these accomplished photogs:
Newport Beach “Killer” Whale Watching
“Do you ever see killer whales in Newport Beach?” is a question often asked by our guests as we head out of the harbor. Yes, we do! Some even want me to save their phone number and call them as soon as we have a sighting. Killer whales are definitely an uncommon sighting, but in recent years there is some predictability to finding them while whale watching off Newport Beach.
At Newport Coastal Adventure, we were fortunate to encounter killer whales twice this winter! Our first sighting, on January 7th, was of some now regular Southern California visitors of the CA51 Transient pod. This pod specializes in eating marine mammals, and typically spends most of its time roving the waters off of Central and Northern California. But late December through February there have been increasing sightings here as the 4 members of this group visit us in So Cal to take some sea lions off our hands. The farthest south they have been documented is Dana Point, so we are lucky that they choose to make their loop right here off Newport Beach.
Here’s 3 out of the 4 whales of the CA51 Killer Whale pod; a picture taken from our boat. These whales are named… from left to right is Star (female, matriarch), Orion (male, her son), and Comet (female, the “baby girl”). When I took this picture the 4th member of the pod, Bumper (male, son) was swimming under our boat. He came up for air a second later to investigate. Bumper is known for liking inflatable boats like ours…. hence his name!
Here’s a video of our encounter with the CA51s, just 2 miles off Newport Beach on that beautiful January afternoon.
Our second encounter, on January 16th, involved a completely different type and even more rare Southern California killer whale visitor; these were “Eastern Tropical Pacific” type killer whales in a pod numbering of at least 8 individuals. These whales spend most of their time in warmer Mexican waters and are at the northern most extent of their range while in Southern California. We encountered them farther offshore, at 10 miles and traveling fast, so I only got one good picture. “ETPs” are not cataloged like the Transient killer whales, so for now, this one is nameless!
Killer whales come in many shapes, sizes and patterns! There is one more type of killer whale that visits Southern California we have not encountered yet; those would be the “offshore type” fish eating whales. A few were seen this winter, but never made it down to Newport Beach.
Here’s a really cool graphic from NOAA about all the different type of killer whales found worldwide (click this URL for a larger version: https://swfsc.noaa.gov/uploadedImages/Divisions/PRD/Programs/Ecology/Killer%20Whale%20Poster%20-%20final.jpg?n=1491
There’s Plenty of
Fish Cetaceans in the Sea. Well, How Many Exactly?!
On any given day, the amount and types of cetaceans (dolphins and whales) we see can fluctuate greatly. This can be due to several factors, mostly ocean conditions (seasonality, water temperature, water quality, and productivity) or just pure luck. Another factor which can dictate our sightings of certain animals is simply the population size of each species that exists in the ocean.
But how can we begin to know the number of dolphins and whales in the ocean? The set of data which gives us the best idea is NOAA’s Stock Assessment Reports, which are written by government scientists who take their best guess at the population size of species within a general region. Most cetaceans that are common in our waters fall into the “California/Oregon/Washington geographic complex, where surveys are typically conducted via ship within 300 miles of the coast. When you imagine how difficult it must be to make observations and counts over that huge area, it doesn’t inspire much confidence in the numbers. But the PhDs at NOAA have this figured out better than me, and with a lot of math they can come up with their best guess. (The numbers obviously aren’t expected to be exactly the number of animals; it’s just what the equations spit out.)
So, what is the most abundant dolphin species in the California/Oregon/Washington region?
Perhaps not surprisingly, that distinction goes to both species of Common Dolphin, which combined perhaps equal around a half-million animals.
- Short Beaked Common Dolphin: 411,211 individuals
- Long Beaked Common Dolphin: 107,016 individuals
^ That’s a lot of common dolphin.
The remaining dolphin species (that are not rare to So Cal) population estimates are:
- Pacific White-Sided Dolphin: 26,930 individuals
- Risso’s Dolphin: 6,272 individuals
- Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin: 1,006 individuals
- Coastal Bottlenose Dolphin (San Francisco to San Diego only): 323 individuals
So, when we have a good day and might see a large pod of 500 common dolphin, we are only seeing 0.001% of the population. Yet when we see group of 40 offshore bottlenose, as we did last week, that amounts to a sighting of 4% of the entire stock at one time, which is pretty amazing!
However, some of these species we get to see more often despite their small population size because their habits keep them close to shore, which is where Newport Coastal Adventure operates most of the time. For example, while only a few hundred Coastal Bottlenose Dolphins exist in California, 90% of the time these dolphins stay within 1,000 feet of the shoreline. Sometimes we even see them in the harbor on the way out. Which explains why they’re a more common sighting than Rissos’s dolphins, whose population numbers in the thousands, but their feeding and behavioral habits allow for a much broader geographic spread.
^ Risso’s Dolphins primary forage is squid, and they are most often found in deeper waters and around the Channel Islands.
Here are the population numbers throughout the California/Oregon/Washington geographic complex for commonly encountered whales in So Cal.
- Gray Whales (Eastern North Pacific Stock): 19,126 individuals
- Fin Whales: 3,051 individuals
- Humpback Whales: 1,918individuals
- Blue Whales: 1,647 individuals
- Minke Whales: 478 individuals
Local whale abundance is much more seasonal, so population numbers don’t necessarily give a good idea of consistent sightings. To see a dozen gray whales in one day is possible in January, but impossible in July, as their presence in California is strictly as migratory passerby’s. Other whale species can be spotted any month of the year in So Cal, but their abundance tends to be greater May-November.
I’ve left out the very interesting topic of Orca populations and ecotypes, but we’ll save that for another post!
Sea Lions vs. Harbor Seals
Yes, that is an abbreviation for “versus”. I’m asking you to take a side. I certainly have!
Well, I’ll give each animal a fair shake first with an introduction. A lot of people just lump the two together as “seals”. A seal here, a seal there, everywhere a seal…. erroneous. Harbor Seals and Sea Lions are both broadly pinnipeds, but specifically Harbor Seals are members of the family Phocidae and Sea Lions belong to Otariidae. Thankfully, their sole distinguishing characteristic isn’t having different and difficult to pronounce Latin names. Harbor Seals don’t have external ear flaps as Sea Lions do. They also don’t have rotating and rigid pectoral and rear flippers, as Sea Lions do. Now that you know there’s a difference, pick one.
^ For visual learners.
I’ll break it down now for you why I am a unabashedly a member of “Team Harbor Seal.”
- Big (Get up to 800lbs)
- Smelly (They sleep on top of each other making a huge mess)
- Mean (OK, that’s not very fair… but generally not friendly)
- Loud (They bark- who likes barking dogs?)
- Overpopulated (300,000 of ‘em- commonly invade boats, piers, and sometimes even homes)
- Cute (Look at those eyes!)
- Tidy (Have a better concept of personal space and hygiene)
- Playful (Watch the video below- and how could something that looks like ^ not be playful?)
- Quiet (A grunt or groan every now and then)
- Under the radar (Discreetly hunt in kelp forests, and 1/10 the population size of Sea Lions)
I filmed the above video a few Decembers back at Seal Rock, Crescent Bay, which is a favorite stop on Newport Coastal Adventure’s tour. You can see around 0:30 seconds standard sea lion behavior… talented swimmers no doubt, but a bit on edge. Following that, you can see how much of a cuddle bug a harbor seal is capable of being!
Another freediver, named “The Freediver”, captured this video of a Orange County harbor seal making its own attempt at the “Friendliest Harbor Seal Ever!!!”
It really is a magical moment when you get a harbor seal that wants to play with you while diving. Having a wild animal nuzzle up to you like a golden retriever can really give warm fuzzies about nature.
However, both species are photogenic and fun to see in their own unique ways. And since Newport Coastal Adventure is not a snorkeling tour, you’ll enjoy these pinnipeds from the perspective of our boat, which is a lot warmer and absent of sharks.
On the North Laguna coast that we visit, each species has its own spot where they “haulout”. The first is the harbor seals at the north side of Irvine Cove.
^ Resident OC Harbor Seals at the Irvine Cove haulout. These critters are nearly always at this specific spot to rest, at any time numbering from just one to as many as a dozen. A lot of their time is spent hunting however, from Newport Jetty down to Dana Point.
^ This is “Seal Rock” off Crescent Bay, North Laguna. The rock is actually incorrectly named, as it is most definitely a sea lion haulout. Although the other day for the first time, I did see a harbor seal joining them! That is a rare occurrence, as usually these species keep a distance from each other, especially when resting.
I will concede one point to the Sea Lions. When viewing them from the boat, they can be a lot more entertaining than Harbor Seals. But kind of in the same way that strange group of cousins that shows up every 3rd Christmas are. Raucous shoving and biting…Better to be an observer taking photos than a participant in the mix!