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Gluttony on the high seas – massive humpback lunging session

2015 06-25 SB Channel

NOTE: “Gluttony” may be a bit anthropomorphic, but it helps me relate to you the spectacular humpback whale feeding episodes we witnessed today out past Charlie.

There was dense fog in our neck of the Santa Barbara Channel, in fact the NOAA fog website showed the whole darned place fogged in. At times our lateral visibility was less than ¼-mile, at other times we got lucky with ½-mile with sun directly over head. Sea conditions were excellent. There was little to no wind and a slow ground swell from the southwest that didn’t seem to bother us or the #whales.

The trip sightings started off around 10:40 am when Captain Eric spotted some nearby long-beaked common dolphin activity. We did our #dolphin watching and noted that these little cetaceans were mostly feeding on and near the surface. Before long, as Eric hoped and prayed, out of the dense fog a single humpback whale came in to join the dolphins. Numerous California sea lions, mostly pups, were also on patrol.

About an hour later Eric took us in a series of ever-widening circles around the early morning hot spot, hoping to find more action in the dense fog. When vision is limited we frequently locate them by the sound of their spouts and/or their “distinctive” smell. Deck hand, and #1 eagle-eye Augie, perfomed the impossible, and I don’t know if it was sound, smell or sight. But he somehow located a much large hot spot in dense fog, and it was so spectacular we stayed on site the rest of the excursion.

So here is where the gluttony part comes in. The hot spot was about 50 yards in diameter and consisted of tightly packed northern anchovies that we could see discoloring the surface of the water. Although there were no dolphins on this hot spot until later, the sea birds (with excellent vision just like Augie) were already feeding. We saw a few black-vented shearwaters among the multitudes of sooty shearwaters, there were lots and lots of Heermann’s gulls and not so many westerns. Both the brown pelicans and the elegant terns were crashing the banquet from the air. And, of course, the humpback whales were there…at least 12 of them, and there was non-stop, highly exciting, surface lunge feeding for the next 2 hours. (To be accurate, this activity was still going on as we slowly left the area when time ran out and we had to return to Santa Barbara).

The lunge feeding assumed many postures. Some of this feeding was straight up and down. Frequently there was forward swimming lunging as well as upside down lunging. Lunging while rolling was also observed. The lunge feeding was also done in various size groups. We saw a few individual whales lunge by themselves. Some formed cooperative groups including pairs, trios, quartets, and even one or two events with 8 humpbacks vertically lunging straight out of the water simultaneously. Between lunges, and after rolling and deflating the gullar pouch, the humpbacks frequently headed away from the hot spot, swam off a few hundred yards, then turned and dove back into the epicenter only to lunge feed again.

The sightings, albeit foggy, were epic. Captain Eric summed it up: “It was a fantastic day to be anything but an anchovy.”

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

PS   It will probably be this weekend before I can process all these images and get them posted online.

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