The Humpy Dance

By Doug Ross

Sept 26, 2013—A whale watching trip in the Monterey Bay right now will cost you fifty bucks but will leave you a lot richer. I went out with Blue Ocean Whale Watch out of Moss Landing last week and was treated to the show of a lifetime.

An abundance of anchovies right now is attracting Humpback whales, Sea Lions, and various birds who seem to work together to decimate the schools of baitfish. This dance is the best show in town.

We were about five miles out, over the Monterey Canyon, an underwater chasm as deep as the Grand Canyon. Instead of desert, the Monterey Canyon is a fountain of life. The combination of cold water, nutrient-rich sediments and upwelling produces abundant planktons, which leads to vast schools of anchovies. This year the anchovies are running in unprecedented numbers.

The first thing you see is the huge flock of birds—various gulls, pelicans, Shearwaters and more circling a patch of ocean, cackling incessantly. Below them are 200-300 Sea Lions hanging out in a raft with heads up, as if waiting.

The next thing that happens is amazing: anchovies rise to the surface and start jumping and flipping as if trying to escape the sea. Every time, this is followed by the impressive sight of, on this day, from two to six (!) Humpback whales rising in tandem, lunge feeding. Their great heads rise up surprisingly fast with mouths open, like hungry 40-ton synchronized swimmers. Then, closing their mouths they slowly descend.

The hundreds of Sea Lions dive below when they see this, probably going after the fish that scatter. Then come the birds.

Twice we saw a whale descend with its mouth still open. Never having seen this we were puzzled. The second time, though, a sea lion jumped out of the whale’s mouth, answering our question. Humpbacks can’t swallow anything larger than a grapefruit—lucky for Sea Lions!

Doug Ross is a Santa Cruz artist and illustrator, and a Special Rescue Operations Lead with the Marine Mammal Center.

See Doug Ross’s fine art and illustration work here.

See Doug’s Seasons in the Sanctuary poster here.

Video of Humpbacks feeding last week beneath a flock of various seabirds: