Blue Whales In February? Not So Crazy

Those early blue whales that have been spotted off the coastline in Southern California this week and last may not be as unusual as you think.

For the past five years, the first sightings of these behemoths have been in April; last year, there was a February sighting as well. A few early blues have been routinely seen splaying between the coastlines of Long Beach and Dana Point, only to disappear for a few months until June when the larger whale population descends into their Southland summer vacation spot.

The Aquarium of the Pacific’s Blue Whale Photo ID project is going to come in handy, says Keira Mathes who heads up that program in partnership with Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington.  The data base, she says, has just been transferred to a new format so when whales are spotted today, they can be identified and referenced. “We would love to know if the early blue whales we are seeing are the ones that usually come here earlier in the season,” she says.

Mathes’ interns spotted a blue whale last week about Harbor Cruise that leads tours out of Long Beach. She’s anxious to scour the database to see if she can find a match. (Researchers use fluke and tail markings among other characteristics to identify specific whales.)

Lucky passengers on other excursion boats – including Captain Dave Dolphin & Whale Safari and Dana Wharf Whale Watching – have seen as many as five blue whales in the past week.

Why so early? No one knows for sure, but the Krill Buffet may be the ticket. Tiny shrimp-like creatures that are the whale’s main food, the krill population this year has been “incredible,” says Mathes. “So much of it is out there and other whales – like fins – are having a feast.”

Of course, maybe the blues caught wind that the Dana Point Festival of Whales kicks off this weekend and they wanted to crash the party.

Currently, about 2-3,000 blue whales are thought to be in Pacific waters, although little is known about these critters – which are the biggest creature ever to live on Earth (150 tons to be exact). Their migration patterns aren’t as regular as their sister gray whales that travel between Alaska/Russia and Mexico twice a year; Mathes says blues that spend their summers here are definably coming up from southern Central American waters.

— Brenda Rees, editor

Photo by Martha Benedict, 2011
Photo by Martha Benedict, 2011