Peering over the top deck of the Redondo Beach-based Voyager, 7-year-old Michael Botros was impressed: “Oh my God!” he shouted.
Michael was watching three minke whales lunch on shrimp-like krill a few miles from shore Friday afternoon.
“I saw a fin,” he yelled, as the 10-ton whales circled a patch of food. “It’s coming toward us. Oh my God, it’s right there, it’s right there!”
Minkes are some of the smallest baleen whales, but this whale-watching excursion out of Redondo Beach Marina was on a mission to find the biggest mammals on Earth. Hundred-ton blue whales have visited the area every summer for the past six years. Blues are the largest of the 80 species of whales worldwide.
On Friday, the boat caught up with one just off Point Vicente on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. It was busily swimming south toward Long Beach, where blue whales have been seen daily for more than a week.
The Voyager began blue whale-watching trips on Friday, and will have another one at 10 a.m. today and one at 10 a.m. Sunday. Until recent years, the boat only operated trips from December to March to view gray whales, which migrate annually from Alaska to Mexico to give birth.
Blue whales – the larger cousins of the grays – have been visiting in July and August.
“This is a week earlier than they’ve shown up in past years,” said the boat’s captain, Brad Sawyer. “We’re trying to get an early start on them.”
Sawyer said passengers get excited to see blue whales because of their massive weight and length.
“They’re in awe just to see the size of them,” he said.
Blue whales come here for one main reason: tiny red crustaceans called krill that travel in cool water in massive swarms. It’s good that they move in swarms because a blue whale can eat up to four tons of them a day.
Bobbie Hedges, a Cabrillo Marine Aquarium naturalist, demonstrated whale behaviors to Voyager passengers on Friday using stuffed animals.
“We know very little about the blues,” she said. “Except that they get up to 90 feet long here and can weigh up to 200 tons. They’re constantly on the lookout for krill.”
Worldwide, there are estimated to be about 10,000 blue whales – 2,000 of which live in the north Pacific Ocean. They are an endangered species because whaling decimated their numbers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
As baleen whales, blues have long fringed plates in place of teeth. They have throat grooves that expand when filled with thousands of gallons of water and krill. To filter out food, the whales push the water out through their baleen and swallow the krill.
“When the blue whale eats tons of krill a day, it has to poop tons of krill a day,” Hedges told passengers. “The poop is red because it’s the shells of the krill.”
On Friday, passengers also got a glimpse of other often-seen residents of the water off of the South Bay. Long-beaked common dolphin followed the boat for some time, and California brown pelicans made several appearances. As usual, sea lions crowded offshore buoys and Mola mola – also known as ocean sunfish – floated on the surface with jellyfish and several species of seabirds.
Molas eat jellyfish and can grow to weigh a ton. They often float sideways on the surface of the ocean, sunning themselves.
Hedges described the flat, bony, often parasite-infested fish to boat passengers.
“They’re very weird and ugly as can be,” she said. “They have big pink lips and no tail – just a rudder. But they can get 15 to 20 feet across.”
Someone asked: Can you eat them?
“Yeah, but it’s hard to get a bite out of them because they’re so bony and hard,” she said.
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