Blue Whale off San Diego

From the turn of 1900 through the  mid 1960s there were an estimated 250,000 blue whales on the planet. Sadly, whaling was profitable during this period in human history, and it is estimated that today there are only 12,000 Blue whales roaming through all oceans. The wonderful news is that conservation efforts in the US, Canada and Mexico have been working. Due to strict regulations, the blues are making a recovery here, and it’s estimated that there are now about 2,500 migrating Blues along America’s western coastline. Every season, from December through February, they head South to Baja California and to the Costa Rica dome to feed and socialize.  From June through October they head back north to Canada and Alaska.

This year was something special in the water along the coast of California and matter of fact all along the Eastern Pacific of the Americas. Once again we faced the cyclical arrival of the El Nino. The nature phenomena that cause the sea water temperature to rise, normal average is between 68-72, during the summer and fall season. This year it is 72 – 77 and 80 at Catalina in August…and that cause of many changes, like increase in the number of hurricane storms one hand and on the other the show up of greater number and new wildlife along the coastline

El Nino brought some unexpected benefits this year. The blue whale and pelagic migration off San Diego was spectacular: storms were not an issue; wildlife was plentiful. As in the past six years, we went out to sea primarily to view the migrating blue whales, and this year we were greatly rewarded.

Like all wildlife, blues are opportunist, and when food is plentiful, they will show up to gorge on it. This year, due to the warm water, red alga, and krill concentrated close to the surface along the migration route of the blues, giving us many opportunities to swim with them and even observe them feeding.

Although Blue whales are the largest living things on our planet – measuring anywhere from 60 and up to 100feet long (33meters) – it is very rare to see them in the vast ocean. They are shy and usually travel from one location to another along underwater canyons in deep water, far from land. In order to spot these giants, I charter a spotter plane, flown by my old time favorite pilot, Chris, who I’ve been working with for the last six seasons.

Chris has eyes like and eagle, and once he spots the whales moving north from Mexico, he radios the mother ship. On the other side of the radio is the ship’s skipper, Ryan, who has been the skipper for six years.

Blue Whale off San Diego
Blue whale team

Ryan is a master at navigating the mother ship into position, which requires great understanding of the whales and an appreciation for keeping a distance that’s comfortable, which means, far enough for them and close enough for us. Once Ryan gets the boat situated properly, he shuts the engines, and we commence launching the fleet of five, two-person kayaks into the water.

Interesting enough, blue whales are very shy animal compared to other more curious whales, such as Sperm, Minke and Humpback. So in order to have good, in-person encounters with these rare beings, we deploy each and every one of our guests on-board a two person kayak. The guests sit up front with mask, fins, snorkel and camera at hand, while in the rear seat, we hire expert and strong kayakers, who paddle as stealthily as possible towards the incoming blues.

In addition to the giant blues, we witnessed greater numbers of the strangely beautiful Mola Mola fish hiding among the floating kelp, feeding on the than greater than usual number of Velella Velella (relative to the Portuguese man o’war but relatively benign to humans) that proliferate in the warm water and get locked up among the kelp leaves.

Last but not least, we were very excited to encounter smooth hammerhead sharks, which are only rarely seen along the coast of California. With the increasing water temperatures, pelagic fish move further north, along our coast, in search of cooler water for their own survival. Consequently, US coastal fishing saw a great increase in the harvest of sardines, anchovies, squid, salmon, tuna and Mhai Mhai. To our great delight, the presence of these fish attracted the smooth hammerheads from their usual habitat along the Mexican coast line.

Mola & Kelp1925

Kyle & Smooth Hammerhead2207
To summarize, due to this year’s ecological changes, BigAnimals Expeditions’ trip to San Diego was the richest and most exciting season I can remember so far. Although El Nino will pass, and the water temperatures will start cooling off towards the normal 68– 72F, I know the whales will be there again in force next year, and I’m already excited to get back to see them again.

Smooth HAmmerhead turning on the spot 2228  copy

(vs)Mola MolaX3 - 1835

lBlueWhale-Eye to eye



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