Upside down feeding
2016 05-13 SB Channel
The Santa Barbara Harbor pinniped sanctuary (formerly the bait barge) starts the day with just a couple of Pacific harbor seals. By the time we come back in the afternoon our recent harbor seal count has been in the 10 -13 range along with 2 – 4 California sea lions. The seals take the inside edge, the sea lions on the outside near the fairway. Perhaps the beach down at Carp Pier is getting overcrowded?
Captain Dave ran the Condor Express on a lengthy exploration of the eastern Santa Barbara Channel today, and ended up circumnavigating the region. Our first sighting was a megapod of at least 500 long-beaked common dolphins out near Habitat. A half-hour later we had moved northeast into the Flats, where we spent the rest of the trip. There were many oceanic hot spots in the Flats ranging from very small to medium sized. The first one had another 200 long-beaked common dolphins along with at least 3 Minke whales.
Moving further east and a bit south into the deep Flats, two smaller hot spots had 100 and then 250 long-beaked common dolphins respectively. When each hot spot got active numerous agile brown pelicans circled and crashed alongside noisy elegant terns. A bit before noon one such active hot spot yielded a second humpback whale. We were in the Lanes adjacent to Pedro Point, the extreme eastern end of Santa Cruz Island. This humpback was actively feeding on the surface and followed a curious pattern which we have seen a few times before over the past years. First the beast would lunge feed above or near the surface. (Today it was near the surface and rolled upside-down each time, exposing the grooves along its ventral blubber.) Second, the beast lifts its head while slowly moving forward and opens and closes its mouth, exposing copious baleen…as if “chomping” the air. Next, the whale sinks back to a horizontal position on the surface, blows air out of its mouth, through the baleen, then does a fake attempt at a shallow dive. The initial stage of the dive is accompanied by a larger underwater blast of air and bubbles from both sides of the mouth. The head then raised up slightly and water is ejected from both sides, through the baleen.
Questions are, of course, raised. Is this animal gargling, or rinsing food bits from its baleen…analogous to our flossing our teeth? Is it feeding on some small, unseen quantity of food floating on or near the surface? Does all this snapping and bubbling send out sounds to other hungry humpbacks in the zone?
We continued south towards Pedro Point and stopped in the Lanes, where we encountered a friendly and animated group of about 200 short-beaked common dolphins with more diving pelicans. And then is was back across the Channel and home to Santa Barbara. We took the longer, scenic route today.
The day started off with fairly glassy seas and a small, long-period swell. The overcast “May Gray” skies got thinner and warmer in the afternoon when the winds came up just a little bit. Overall conditions were just great.
You never know what Mother Nature has in store. Bob Perry Condor Express