03-07-2012: Close up looks at Gray Whales, 1,000 Plus Common Dolphins, Rare Northern Fur Seal Sighting and a Handful of Black-footed Albatross, Remarkable Day

Common Dolphin

A long-beaked common dolphin speeds by and checks us out. They will often leverage the energy of our boat wake to gain speed and cruise. Photo: Sack 03-07-2012

Wow! Today was a welcome change. I was beginning to loose faith in the diversity of species that Monterey Bay is so well known for. Don’t get me wrong. Gray whales are great and all. I mean, there aren’t too many animals in this world that make a twelve thousand mile round-trip migration just to breed and give birth to their young. And they don’t eat much, if anything, for the whole trip. Truly remarkable.

And who am I to complain. I mean, there’s 20,000 some-odd of these animals that come across The Monterey Bay twice a year. Once when they’re heading down to their breeding and birthing grounds in the warm water lagoons of Baja, California. That happens in December and January. And then again when they comeback up north as they make their way to the feeding grounds in the Bering Sea. That happens in February, March and April. They’ve been doing this migration since ancient times. So they’re a sure thing if you want to go whale watching in the Monterey Bay. Of course, that’s good for us. Seeing as that is my main goal in life. At least when the weather doesn’t get in the way.

That being said. After almost two weeks of seeing pretty much only gray whales out there, today we were treated to some rare visitors and had a pretty well-rounded day of marine wildlife viewing. Sure, we always get great looks at sea otters, sea lions and some species of pelagic birds.

But today was exciting in the diversity. We started out in a pesky 5′-7′ short period swell making the going a bit rocky. And it didn’t get a whole lot better as we headed into deeper water to the southwest off Point Pinos. By the time we got to the mouth of The Bay, the area we call the “Gray Whale Superhighway,” we were dealing with some 4′-6′ very steep swells. Not enough to be dangerous, but just enough to tire you out from having to constantly fight against the rocking and rolling of the boat.

Regardless, we had some outstanding views of these magnificent gray whales. I love when two of them do simultaneous tail flukes. Unfortunately, I had my hands full manning the helm today, so I didn’t get any gray whale shots. After over an hour of great viewing, we decided to head into deeper water toward center of The Bay.

Black-footed albatross

A black-footed albatross buzzes the boat above a pod of about 1,000 common dolphins. The dolphins and the albatross seemed to be feeding together. Photo: Sack 03-07-2012

The sea conditions seemed to have gotten calmer as we made our way to the Northwest towards Moss Landing. That’s when I spotted the unmistakable splashing and ocean surface disturbance of what was obviously some type of dolphins. Usually common dolphins, pacific white-sided or even Dall’s Porpoise.

Today it was a pod of about 1,000 common dolphins. What a relief. It’s always nice to break up the trip with a friendly group of frolicking dolphins. These animals will often come over to us and buzz the boat, bow ride and jump out of the water as they cruise the area. This group was clearly feeding. So that was cool. And I got to take some photos too.

There were also a few Albatross feeding along side the dolphins. I was stoked to get some nice shots of one these amazing birds. They are very well adapted for what they do. They’re known to fly all the way from Hawaii. They lock their wings in place and just ride the wind. I’m guessing they made some good time with that heavy wind we had yesterday. They’re not usually around here this time of year. We usually see them more often toward the late spring and summer.

We hung out with the dolphins and the albatross for about a half hour before I made a course for Moss Landing.

Northern Fur Seal

A young Northern Fur Seal was just kind of hanging out there all alone in the middle of The Bay. Photo: Sack 03-07-2012

On the way in, after about 20 minutes underway, Dorris came to the wheel house and shouted at me to stop the boat. She gets pretty excited. Sometimes it scares me because I think something’s wrong.

Apparently, she spotted the tell-tale shape of young Northern fur seal. It looks like a brown circle sticking out of the water. It’s formed by a fur seal lying on its side at the surface and holding both front and rear flippers up out of the water linked together to form a “jug handle”. So we turned around and sure enough, there it was. I got some great photos of this peculiar looking animal as well.

Biologists call this behavior “jugging”. It is actually a form of thermo-regulation to conserve body heat. The seal can minimize heat loss to the cold water and warm itself up by “sunning” its flippers. This is one of the many “cool” adaptations we find in marine mammals.

We don’t see many fur seals in the Monterey Bay or close to shore in California. Most are found farther out to sea and way up north in Alaska where the majority of them breed. Although, there is a breeding colony on San Miguel Island in the Channel Islands. The females and young pups do roam the offshore waters in the NE Pacific while feeding, but seldom come close enough in for us to get a glimpse. Today’s sighting was a special treat as the young pup turned somersaults in the water and repeatedly popped up to peer up at us inquisitively. This photograph shows the distinctive shape of the nose and face which is a more blunt profile than the California sea lion, it’s closest relative in Monterey Bay.

You may be wondering – What is the difference between a seal, a sea lion or a fur seal? Common names can be confusing. The Northern Fur Seal, Callorhinus ursinus, is in the same family as the sea lions, the Otariidae. These animals can be distinguished by their tiny external ear flaps and their ability to rotate their long rear flippers underneath their bodies to move about on land. True seals, such as the local harbor seal and elephant seal, are in the Family Phocidae. At least that’s what Dorris said.

About Michael Sack

Boat Captain, Monterey Bay marine life naturalist and guide. Photographer and Videographer.
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