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Monterey Bay Whale Watch - Whales

Gray Whale Humpback Whale   Blue Whale Killer Whale
Minke Whale Fin Whale   Baird's Beaked Whale
Click on small pictures below to see full-size photos (size 11K - 27K).


--- Gray Whale ---

Gray Whale The entire Gray Whale population migrates past the Monterey coastline every winter and spring. These whales have one of the longest animal migrations known, traveling over 12,000 miles from their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea to their winter breeding grounds in Baja California and back again. Gray Whales have come back from the brink of extinction and now number over 25,000 individuals and have recently been taken off the endangered species list. Gray Whales are easily observed as they hug the coastline during migration.

Gray Whales are present off Monterey from December through May. Off Monterey, Gray Whales migrate south from December through mid February, with peak numbers occurring during mid January. Whales migrate north from mid February through May, peaking during mid March. Most adult and juvenile whales pass Monterey on their way to Alaska by mid April. Mother gray whales with their newly born calves pass Monterey during April and May. The mother/calf pairs are most susceptible to Killer Whale attacks in the Bay during this period.

Gray Whales reach lengths of 45', are generally gray in color with white mottling, and have many barnacles and whale lice embedded in their skin. They migrate slowly, at about 2-5 miles/hr, and generally blow 3-5 times before fluking up and diving for 2-7 minutes. During this migration they occasionally breach, spyhop, and mate with other Grays. They travel singly or in pods ranging from 2 to 10 whales.

Monterey Bay is the best place along the California coast to observe gray whales. Since the shallow continental shelf does not extend very far from shore off Monterey due to the nearshore submarine canyon, Gray Whales can be found within a few miles of the coast in this region compared to 15 or more miles from shore off San Francisco.

--- Humpback Whale ---

Humpback Whale The Humpback Whale is an endangered species, occurring in all the world's oceans. The central California population of Humpback Whales migrates from their winter calving and mating areas off Mexico to their summer and fall feeding areas off coastal California. Humpback Whales occur in Monterey Bay from late April to early December. During this period the whales are here to feed on anchovies, sardines, and krill.

Humpback Whales reach lengths of 50 to 55', are dark in color with distinctive nodules on their rostrum, and have pectoral flippers that are nearly a third of their body length. Current population estimates for Humpback Whales off California conducted by Cascadia Research Collective indicate there are about 800 whales in this population. All whales have been photo-identified by natural markings and coloration on the underside of the tail fluke. From this photo-identification work, the migratory movements, calving intervals, association patterns, and population estimates can be determined for these whales.

Humpback Whales are in Monterey Bay to feed and they often shift to various feeding locations depending on prey density. Humpbacks are often observed lunge feeding near the surface or deep diving for prey that is concentrated several hundred feet deep. This whale is the most animated of all the baleen whales, and in the Bay they are often seen breaching, spyhopping, pectoral fin slapping, and tail lobbing.

Humpback Whale next to boat In recent years, many different Humpback Whales in this population often approach our boat for "friendly" encounters. When engaging in this "friendly" behavior, a whale will often circle our boat, rub up against it, spyhop within several feet of the boat, roll on its side and extend its pectoral flipper toward the boat, and often tilt its head with an eye open, appearing to look up at the boat and people on board. This phenomenon has been increasing each year, probably because this new generation of whales that have never known whaling are becoming curious about boats, and they often stay for several hours investigating our boat. This contact is totally initiated by the whales.

Monterey Bay is one of the best places to observe humpbacks on a day's whale watch because the submarine canyon approaches very close to shore here. The whales are frequently found along the edges of the canyon where prey tends to concentrate. At times, the whales come even closer to shore while feeding on anchovies and can also be found 8-20 miles from shore where concentrations of krill occur in relation to thermal fronts. We attempt to photo-identify all Humpback Whales sighted on Monterey Bay Whale Watch trips and contribute these photos to Cascadia Research.

--- Blue Whale ---

Blue Whale The Blue Whale is the largest animal ever to live on earth, reaching lengths of 80 to 100'. Blues feed only on krill and are found in Monterey Bay from June through October during times of high krill abundance. Like the Humpbacks, Blue Whales often shift to various feeding locations off central California in search of krill concentrations. Blue Whales begin to migrate south during November. It is still a mystery as to where the Blue Whales gather to give birth and mate, but it is suspected this happens in offshore waters south of Mexico. Blue Whales produce very low frequency sounds that are probably used for long-range communication, with some sounds possibly used to locate dense krill patches. These low moaning sounds can travel over hundreds or thousands of miles across ocean basins.

Blue Whales are truly a majestic species, with a tall narrow blow of up to 30'. A bright blue coloration is easily observed before the whales surface. Because of their size, only part of their body is visible at a time and the dorsal fin is usually observed just before their dive. Blue Whales may lunge feed at the surface to engulf surface swarms of krill or they may fluke up and dive to several hundred feet for deep krill concentrations. A single Blue Whale consumes about 4 tons of krill or 40 million individual krill each day. In Monterey Bay, Blue Whales often occur near the edges of the submarine canyon where krill tends to concentrate.

The population of Blue Whales off California has been estimated to number about 2,200 individuals from work conducted by Cascadia Research Collective. Blue Whales are endangered with only about 10,000 existing in the world. The population off California appears to be the largest and healthiest population of Blues in the world. Each Blue Whale can be identified by photographing the side of the whale with its dorsal fin in view, as Blue Whales have very distinctive mottling patterns on their grayish blue body. We attempt to photo-identify all Blue Whales sighted on Monterey Bay Whale Watch trips and contribute the photos to Cascadia Research for analysis.

--- Killer Whale ---

Killer Whale Killer Whales occur year-round and are occasionally seen (2-5 times per month) in the Monterey Bay area in pods that average 8 to 20 individuals. Two types of Killer Whales normally occur here, the "transients" and "offshores". "Transient" Killer Whales prey on marine mammals, travel long distances, and tend to have pointed dorsal fins with closed saddle patches. Within Monterey Bay, these whales attack Gray Whales, California Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, Elephant Seals, and Dall's Porpoise. "Offshore" Killer Whales are a recently discovered form that tend to travel in large groups of up to 100 individuals, and tend to have more rounded dorsal fins. These whales probably feed on fish and squid.

In January 2000, "Resident" Killer Whales from Washington State and British Columbia were observed and photographed in Monterey Bay for the first time. This remarkable event is described in our February 2000 feature.

As part of the Monterey Bay Cetacean Project, we have photo-identified close to 200 individual Killer Whales off California, with the majority identified in Monterey Bay. Killer Whales identified in Monterey Bay have been repeatedly sighted within the same year and over subsequent years. Several of these individual whales have been sighted from southern California to Alaska, indicating they inhabit a large range. We are also monitoring the predatory behavior of Killer Whales and have observed several attacks on Gray Whale calves by Killer Whales in Monterey Bay.

Killer Whales are most frequently sighted in the Bay from January through May and from September through November.

See our Killer Whale Photo Gallery for photos illustrating the appearance and behavior of Killer Whales in Monterey Bay.

Additional sources of information about Killer Whales in Monterey Bay:

--- Minke Whale ---

Minke Whale Minke Whales are the smallest of the baleen whales at about 30' in length. In the Monterey Bay region, it is possible to see Minke Whales year-round, but they are most frequently sighted during the summer and fall. These whales are usually found nearshore over rocky bottom regions where they prey on juvenile rockfishes.

Minke Whales do not have a visible blow and usually exhibit erratic surfacing patterns. However, they are easily sighted by their relatively large dorsal fin and dark body. There appear to be some resident Minke Whales that feed in southern Monterey Bay and along the Big Sur coast. They usually are found as singles.

--- Fin Whale ---

Fin Whales Fin Whales are occasionally encountered during the summer and fall in Monterey Bay and the surrounding waters, although they are more common farther from shore. They are easily identified by their tall blow, dark body, large dorsal fin, and white coloration on their right lower jaw. Fin Whales are capable of traveling at speeds exceeding 20 knots.

--- Baird's Beaked Whale ---

Baird's Beaked Whale Beaked Whales inhabit deep offshore waters, are found in fairly small groups, dive for long periods, and therefore are rarely observed. Baird's Beaked Whales are found only in the North Pacific and are the largest of the Beaked Whales. Sightings of these animals usually occur in the fall in Monterey Bay.


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Photographs by Nancy Black, Tom Jefferson, and Richard Ternullo.