Ocean of Hope

Guest Post-Whale Watching: Southern California Style!

Humpback whale mother & calf
Humpback whale mother & calf flukes photo by: Vaishali Shah

My name is Vaishali Shah and I am a volunteer Naturalist for the Cabrillo Whalewatch Program sponsored by the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium and American Cetacean Society Los Angeles Chapter.

I have been a volunteer for 5 years and it has been an amazing experience. Currently we have over 100 volunteers who join the whale watch boats on their daily tours from December to April. They educate the public on the variety of marine life found in the Santa Monica Bay, CA.

These months (winter and spring) are when the Pacific Gray whale migrates from Alaska to Baja, Mexico and back again. Being right in the migration path, whale watching boats rarely have go out more than 2-3 miles to see these amazing animals. This particular season has been an epic year for gray whale counting. All along the west coast of US, people count the number of gray whales going past. Volunteers, including Whalewatch naturalists, take part in this activity at the Point Vicente Interpretative Center in Palos Verdes, CA as part of the Gray whale census that lasts from 1st December to April, dawn to dusk every day.

This year has been a record year for the Southbound migration of gray whales as 1900 whales have been counted. This is an all time high in the 32 year-old census. This made for many exciting whale watch trips. Each trip lasts for 3 hours and we would see anywhere between 10-16 whales at the peak of migration. This year was fantastic for me as I got to witness my first breaching whale, (when the whale comes right out of the water and splashes down) a truly breath-taking experience.

The captains of the boats are extremely sensitive to the behavior of the whales and will respect them by keeping their distance. By law all vessels, including paddle boarders, have to stay at least 100 yards away from any whale. On numerous occasions, the captain has shut off the boat engine only for the whale to approach and check us out! One time a Humpback whale came so close, I got covered in whale snot!

We see many other types of whales too. Southern California has a variety of different species. This year in the bay we have had resident humpbacks including a mother and calf, and finback whales (the 2nd largest animal in the ocean). There are already sightings of blue whales (the largest animal known to have lived), which usually come to visit us in summertime to feed. Every now and then we get the very rare chance to see orcas, pilot whales, false killer whales and even sperm whales have been sighted.

Common dolphins seen while whale watching
Common Dolphins photo by: Vaishali Shah

The whales with their gigantic size are what people come to see on the whale watch, but it is often the smaller cetacean species that make the trip worthwhile! Dolphins. There are up to 5 species of dolphins in Southern California and the most well known being bottlenose dolphin (Flipper was one). However, my favorite are the common dolphins. On a good day these animals will jump, leap, tail slap and bow-ride the boat. They can be seen in mega pods of thousands. They come close to the boat. It is truly something when you look down into the eye of a wild dolphin.

Last but not least, a typical whale watch is never complete without seeing California Sea Lions. Whether they are resting on a buoy or porpoising behind the boat, children and adults love them. How could you not with those big surly eyes!

Hope you have enjoyed a brief glimpse of a whale watch trip in Santa Monica Bay.


This is a link to the Cabrillo Whalewatch Program Facebook page, come join us!


I also take photographs on the trips, you can buy
matted prints at my Etsy Store: CreatureCurious

The Fastest, Heaviest, Largest, Longest, & Oldest Ocean Animals

oarfish Smithsonian
The longest fish in the ocean: Oarfish photo of oarfish model taken at Smithsonian Institution

Now that the Winter Olympics are over, I thought I’d list some record-breaking ocean animals:

1. The fastest fish in the ocean is a sailfish clocked at 68.18 mph (miles per hour)or 109.73 kph (kilometers per hour).

2. The fastest shark is a mako shark measured at 60 mph (96.56 kph).

3. The heaviest bony fish is a Mola mola (ocean sunfish) that was 10 feet long and weighed 4,928 pounds.

4. The largest fish is a whale shark that was 41.5 feet long (12.6 meters) and weighed 66,000 pounds (21.5 metric tons).

5. The largest, heaviest, and longest ocean animal is a blue whale female measured at 109 feet 3.5 inches(33.27 meters) and 190 tons.

6. The longest fish is an oarfish that was 56 feet long (17 meters)

7. The longest colony (of more than one animal) of animals is a siphonophore (similar to a jellyfish) named Praya dubia that is 100-160 feet long (30-50 meters)

8. The oldest ocean animal was an ocean quahog clam named Ming who was 507 years old.

9. The oldest mammal is a bowhead whale estimated to be at least 211 years old.

10. The deepest swimming air-breathing animal is a sperm whale, which can dive to depths of 9800 feet (3 kilometers)

Some facts based on Biggest, Smallest, Fastest, and Deepest marine animals

10 Killer Whales, or Orca Whales, Facts

Orca breaching
Killer Whale breaching photo by NOAA

10 Killer Whales or Orca Whales Facts:

1. Orca Whales are found in all the world’s oceans.

2. Orcas are apex predators and lack any natural predators.

3. Most males never leave their mothers.

4. Orcas have culture since their hunting techniques and vocalizations are passed down generations.

5. Killer Whales generate 3 types of sounds: clicks, whistles, and pulsed calls.

6. Each pod has its own dialect of calls (that only they use).

7. Orcas and pilot whales are the only non-human species in which females undergo menopause (around age 40 years) and live decades after.

8. There may be up to 4 generations of Orcas in a traveling group.

9. Orcas have the 2nd heaviest brain among marine mammals (sperm whales have the heaviest brain)

10. A female Orca gives birth to 1 calf every five years, and she averages 5 calves per lifetime.

Also see: The 200-Year-Old Bowhead Whale: The Oldest Mammal on Earth

10 Cool Facts About Narwhals

8 Surprising Facts about Orcas from Treehugger

Book Review: Beautiful Whale by Bryant Austin

book Beautiful Whale
Beautiful Whale by Bryant Austin

If I had to describe Bryant Austin’s book, “Beautiful Whale,” in one word, it would be *amazing*. Just looking at the photographs of whales up close is enough to make you go wow, but his accounts of how he got the pictures are just as awe-inspiring.

Austin’s visually stunning oversized coffee table book is based on the life-sized pictures he takes of whales. Taking photographs so close and in so much detail is much easier said than done. He must be within 6 feet of a whale, and he patiently waits for the whale to come to him. He also uses a large state-of-the-art 50 megapixel Hasselblad camera.

Austin’s epiphany to photograph whales came after a female humpback whale gently tapped him on the shoulder with her 15 foot, 2 ton pectoral fin (front flipper). Austin had been interacting with her calf and the ever-watchful mom wanted Austin to know that she was watching him. Austin describes the moment as seeing the “calm mindful expression of a whale’s eye looking into my own eyes.” Little did that whale know the path she would send Austin down!

In perusing the book the first time, I was awestruck by the details in each picture. Not only were the eyes soulful, but every pockmark, birthmark, and scratch told their own story about that whale. Austin covers 3 different kinds of whales in this book: the humpback whale, the sperm whale, and the minke whale.

I was privileged enough to attend Austin’s gallery showing of “Beautiful Whale” at the Museum of Monterey in Monterey, California (it runs until September 2, 2013). Although I could have spent hours staring at his life-size and length whale photographs, I only had a few minutes to indulge them with 2 young children in tow. I did take a picture of them with Enigma, a sperm whale, and of course I couldn’t get the whole 20 foot long whale in one frame!

The most amazing part of Austin’s encounters with the whales is that he waits patiently until they approach him. The results are worth his patience, but there are not many among us that could wait weeks to get the prize-winning shots.

I had first heard of Austin when I read about how he first showed his work in whaling countries like Japan and Norway. His work was well received, and this speaks volumes for the power Austin’s photographs have.

If you are a whale or animal lover, you must check out this book. Even if you are neither, I promise that at least one picture in his book will move you.

Check out Bryant Austin’s website

Visit Austin’s exhibit at the Museum of Monterey (MOM), open until January 2, 2014

Buy now from

Sperm Whales Adopt Deformed Dolphin

Sperm Whales Adopt Deformed Dolphin into Family
Sperm Whale Pod adopts dolphin with deformed spine: photo by Alexander D.M. Wilson/Aquatic Mammals

Hi, I am a sperm whale, and no my name is not Moby Dick, nor am I all-white! I’m not sure whether I should laud Herman Melville for putting sperm whales at the pantheon of literature, or if I should curse him for making us look as lovable as a mosquito.

In any case, sperm whales have been in the news lately. First because humans have filmed a live giant squid in the ocean for the first time (see previous post), and recently the footage was shown on national TV. Humans seem to associate giant squid with us sperm whales. Our epic battles with giant squid are highly romanticized by humans, but we don’t mind! I have a few battle scars, but let me tell you, sperm whales win almost all the time. Squid may be intelligent for an invertebrate, but they are not a highly intelligent mammal. They also don’t have foolproof echolocation like I do!

The other reason sperm whales are in the news is because my pod recently “adopted” a dolphin with a deformed spine. I am not sure why his dolphin pod rejected him, but we are happy to have the fellow around. He is quite playful and joyful, and the calves enjoy his company. The calves especially like spending time with him when the adults go on deep dives to feed. Usually the calves are left at the surface with only one adult sperm whale.

We allow him to rub against us, as it means the same socially for sperm whales as it does for dolphins. In fact, dolphins technically are just small whales.

So why did we let this dolphin hang out with us? Well, life in the open ocean can get lonely and a bit monotonous as all we do on a daily basis is swim through open water, and dive deep to find food. So we make friends wherever we go, whether it is just in passing, or for longer terms, like with this dolphin fellow. We socialize a lot more than humans think, and just because they have never seen us do it doesn’t mean we don’t do it regularly!

Hmm, I’m getting hungry. Time to dive and dine!

This post based on this article

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