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A Nat Geo Kinda Day

2015 05-01 SB Coast

We ran two fantastic adventures into the Santa Barbara Channel today: 9am and 12 noon. Cetacean fortune struck us on both excursions with sightings of gray whales, #dolphins, humpback #whales, sea lions, feeding hot spots, and a plethora of seabirds.

9am. Acting on intel from our pal, Dane, Captain Dave pointed the Condor Express at Santa Rosa Island and intended to move on this route for about 5 miles. It was mill pond flat and glassy in spots with very light ripples here and there where the breeze hadn’t quite got itself going.

Many of the glassy spots were littered with Velella velella again, and we also saw at least 8 Mola mola lunge feeding (one breached and got 12 feet or so out of the water) on the surface. This Mola feeding behavior is fascinating. One might expect that with the Velella smorgasbord out there the predatory flatso’s would just binge and gobble down every little jelly they saw. But nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the Mola will select a morsel and eat it, then slowly swim past numerous other Velella that seem to me to be equally delectable (tho’ I must confess to never having actually consumed a Velella). This cautious and albeit sustainable feeding raises a whole bunch of biology questions.

Out past the Velella and Mola, we encountered a series of surface hot spots with brown pelicans and elegant terns crashing, long-beaked common dolphins (about 150) and California sea lions chasing anchovies, and large flocks of sooty shearwaters and common murres diving.   Also in the area were other feathered predators such as rhinoceros auklet and phalaropes, several species of gull and one aluminum Condor.

The hot spots were spread out over a long line about 5 miles offshore starting at about Hendry’s and ending off Campus Point. Soon at least 3 humpback whales came to the surface for a few breaths, then dove again…repeatedly. Tail flukes were common and one of these knobby-headed beasts breached in the distance. Additional spouts were seen in the area.

After an amazing session watching these animals converge on the hot spots, we headed for the beach where we located a mother gray whale with her calf near Hendry’s, and approximately 5 coastal bottlenose dolphins in the kelp.

12 noon. Just out of the Harbor we located 3 coastal bottlenose dolphins and had a few looks although the water clarity on the beach is not so good and very green. This led us to another mother gray whale and her calf heading towards the Santa Barbara Light tower. After a while Captain Dave turned the boat offshore to look for dolphins and possibly a few more humpbacks. This strategy turned out to be the winning ticket as all the wide spread out hot spots we saw on the morning trip had now converged into a single mega-mass of highly active predators. We started cruising with this massive hot spot about 2.4 miles south of Hendry’s and almost immediately we realized that we were surrounded by humpback whales. I believe we had at least 8 of these animals near us including one mother and calf. Up and down they went, feeding below the surface then coming up for a few breaths.   The water all around them was churned up due to the activity of about 1,000 long-beaked common dolphins and at least 100 California sea lions. The seabirds were there too. In the fray we also passed 3 large Mola mola having their tranquil surface feeding time with the Velella velella disrupted. This was one of those “National Geographic” scenes where you did not know which direction to look (or to point your camera).   It was breathtaking.

You never know what Mother Nature has in store. Bob Perry Condor Express

I’ll post up the rest of the photos sometime this weekend.

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