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Humpback Comeback: Species Recovery in Monterey Bay and the Pacific

Humpback Whales are recovering in Monterey to numbers not seen since before commercial whaling.

Humpback Whales are recovering in Monterey to numbers not seen since before commercial whaling.

Not many things are as awe inspiring as seeing wildlife in its natural environment. Whales hold a fascination for our culture as such majestic and mysterious creatures. Why do whales breach? Why do Humpbacks sing? There are many unanswered questions with complicated answers that we still do not fully understand.

This year Humpback Whales in particular have been incredible in Monterey. In 1905, before the era of commercial whaling there was an estimated population of over 15,000 Humpback Whales in the North Pacific. But by 1966 when the US banned commercial whaling, that same population had been reduced to less than 1,500. When Cascadia Research Collective started studying Humpback Whales along North America’s west coast over 20 years ago there were only ~570 Humpback Whales in the population along the US West Coast. Now the Humpback Whale population along the US West Coast has increased to well over 1,000 and the entire population in the North Pacific is over 21,000 whales— higher than the pre-whaling estimates! (source: Barlow et al. 2011 from Cascadia Research Collective)

The amazing recovery of this dynamic species has been evident in Monterey Bay this fall. Monterey is a hotspot of activity as an area of upwelling where many Humpback Whales are found feeding every year. But this year has been exceptional.
Not every day is sunny in Monterey Bay, but even the fog can reveal wonders like this breaching Humpback Whale, water rushing past pectoral fins and streaming off in sheets as the whale leaps into the air to land back in the water on its back.

Not every day is sunny in Monterey Bay, but even the fog can reveal wonders like this breaching Humpback Whale, water rushing past pectoral fins and streaming off in sheets as the whale leaps into the air to land back in the water on its back.

I have been working with lead marine biologist Nancy Black at Monterey Bay Whale Watch as a research assistant. We take photos of the Humpback Whales we see on our whale watching trips, documenting their location and behavior to contribute to Cascadia Research Collective. We also conduct surveys of all the whales we see on our trips and have a comprehensive record of our daily sightings online since 1998 here.

A quick look at the September and October sightings over the past few years reveals an amazing increase this year. In previous years we have been lucky to see 25 Humpback Whales, most days with fewer than five. This year most days have exceeded fifty whales with some days sighting over 200 whales! This has been most evident on days when we are able to see huge concentrations of Humpbacks with groups of 5, 10, or even 25 whales all in a condensed group with dozens of blows in the distance.
Two Humpback Whales surge to the surface, throats swollen with anchovies and water as gulls flock around them to forage for leftovers.

Two Humpback Whales surge to the surface, throats swollen with anchovies and water as gulls flock around them to forage for leftovers.

Humpback Whales come here to feed. An incredibly adaptive species, Humpback Whales will eat krill, anchovies, herring, sardines, or essentially any small schooling fish. Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute has shown an amazing fluctuation in anchovy population over time, and it appears that we are currently in an anchovy peak year in Monterey Bay. Our whale watching boats are equipped with depth sounders that look directly below the boat. In previous years we typically find balls of bait, a few schools of fish in disconnected groups scattered around the feeding areas.  This year the areas where we have been seeing the most Humpback Whales we have been seeing a continuous blanket of baitfish extending for over a mile, in places over 200 feet thick with fish!

This all started happening when we got a report from a local fisherman in early September of many Humpback Whales near Point Sur. We travelled South of Monterey and Carmel Bay to Point Sur and what we saw simply astounded us. There were groups of 15 to 25 whales in feeding aggregations with hundreds of California Sea Lions, the sea churning with life as they all came to the surface to breathe together, surrounded by gulls and shearwaters, then they all dove down together leaving the sea birds at the surface. This apparently cooperative feeding aggregation is fascinating in itself, we have not observed Humpbacks feeding with groups of sea lions in Monterey.

Ever since we have been seeing literally hundreds of Humpbacks. Every day since September 3rd we have seen over 50 whales almost every day, with peaks over 200. Though we are unable to take ID photos of every whale, we have been seeing many blows or the exhaled breath of whales in the distance while identifying the whales that are nearby. Some of the whales we have seen are ones that we spotted that first day, like “Shred” a very distinct female Humpback Whale with a severely scared and mangled fluke. Other flukes are more subtly distinct, but Shred stands out (see if you can pick her out in the video).
All Humpback Whales can be identified by the markings on the underside of their flukes or tail. Shred's tail is very distinct and has been seen in the feeding season in Monterey many years. However the differences in other Humpback flukes can very subtle, like tails that are all black. We can still tell them apart by looking at the variation in the bumps and ridges on the trailing edge of the tail.

All Humpback Whales can be identified by the markings on the underside of their flukes or tail. Shred’s tail is very distinct, and she has been seen in the feeding season in Monterey many years. However the differences in other Humpback flukes can very subtle, like tails that are all black. We can still tell them apart by looking at the variation in the bumps and ridges on the trailing edge of the tail.

On October 16th I had an amazing opportunity to stay out late with Nancy. That evening as the sun began to set Nancy called out “Look out for the flukes! See if you can get a sunset shot with a tail!” So as she diligently positioned the boat, maneuvering the boat at a safe distance from the whales, we saw several humpbacks between us and the setting sun. After taking ID photos for hours it was fun way to end the day, looking for a good glamour shot. As a biologist of course I am thrilled to see so many whales here to feed, the abundance of a recovering species. But as an artist I relish the opportunity to see such beautiful creatures, especially in such aesthetic conditions. I was very lucky to capture the image of a Humpback diving with the water pouring off of its flukes catching the last rays of light while two other whales started to dive in the background, their last breath at the surface still lingering and hitting the sun in a splash of color (seen at the top of this article). When I got around to sorting through my photos a couple days later I saw the image near the end of the batch for the day and thought it was a nice sunset and the effect with the water was cool. I didn’t really think much of it until after I posted it to Facebook when people got so excited about the image!

I personally hope that this image and so many others that have come out of Monterey Bay this year can help to raise awareness about these remarkable whales and their continuing recovery. Humpbacks are one of the most active species at the surface, famous for their incredible breaching. But they have a whole host of other incredible behaviors, including lunge feeding at the surface, spy hopping, using their long pectoral fins to slap the water, throwing their tails, rolling, diving, jumping, blowing bubbles, and so much more. What is important to me is the story of the science behind the whales and why they are here in such abundance, and hopefully they will continue to thrive. If you get a chance to go whale watching I highly recommend it, you never know what you will see. Even seeing a whale’s blow always takes my breath away.
~Katie Dunbar
For more information, photos, and videos about Monterey Bay Whale Watch check out our Facebook Page!
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One comment on “Humpback Comeback: Species Recovery in Monterey Bay and the Pacific

  1. […] Humpback Comeback: Species Recovery in Monterey Bay and the Pacific (bohemianbiology.wordpress.com) […]

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