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Monday, November 18, 2013

Coastal and Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins

On Saturday, November 9th we headed south to Long Beach where we took an afternoon sea life cruise with Harbor Breeze Cruises. With traffic always the big unknown, we got there a bit early, and had an hour or so to bird around the harbor. There were hundreds of western grebes, but I couldn't find a Clark's grebe among them. Other highlights were the brown pelicans, surf scoters, eared grebes, royal terns, and a black phoebe.

As we headed out of Rainbow Harbor aboard the 85' catamaran Triumphant, we passed the Queen Mary and the Queen Mary Dome where the Spruce Goose used to be housed.

Not far out, we passed the buoy where a pair of masked boobies had been regularly seen. Unfortunately, they hadn't seen them in about a week when we were there. I like the California sea lion that found his way to the second level, though:

The sea conditions in the open Pacific where amazingly calm. We ended up going 12 miles offshore, and the whole way it looked like this:

We didn't have to go that far, however, to encounter our first bottlenose dolphins of the day. Just like we have two different kinds of orcas that frequent the Salish Sea, there are two different populations of bottlenose off the California coast: the coastal and the offshore populations. Despite living in such close proximity to one another, they're genetically distinct. Not much is known about them, but we had a naturalist on board who was taking photo ID shots to help a researcher who is trying to estimate the population size of the local dolphins.

Look at all those scars! Click to see a larger version

We encountered four or five different groups of bottlenose throughout the day, including members of both populations. They were all very interested in bow-riding, give us nice close looks, at times from straight above.

It was amazing to see all the scarring not only on the bodies, but the damage to the dorsal fins, which is the main way they ID different individuals. The shapes varied wildly, too, but check out the injuries some of these dorsal fins have sustained:

Distinct notches

Missing the top of the fin

What was really striking seeing the dolphins bow-riding was how big they are: about 10-12 feet long! Way bigger than the Dall's porpoises that bow ride in the San Juan Islands. Of course there's not much to compare them to size-wise in these photos, but I love the way these shots turned out:


We saw several calves throughout the day, too. They were quick and hard to catch on camera! This is the only decent shot I got:


It's such a special thing to watch cetaceans underwater, in their element. They are such graceful beings, swimming so effortlessly!

In addition to the dolphins, I was hoping to see some pelagic birds out there, but it was surprisingly quiet bird-wise. The most bird activity was when the dolphins were around, and I'm afraid the dolphins took precedence. I did see a single sooty shearwater (190):

Just before our turnaround point we saw some more splashing in the distance. Hoping for Risso's or common dolphins, two species they regularly see in addition to bottlenose, we headed out that way. It turned out just to be more bottlenose dolphins! I was really hoping to see one of the other species, which I haven't ever seen before, but this last group of bottlenose were the most playful of the bunch, and a real treat to see. It was also the biggest group, with maybe about 30 animals.

On our way back, I was keeping an even sharper eye out for birds, and spotted about half a dozen black-vented shearwaters (191, NA life bird 352). It's an even worse picture than of the sooty shearwater, but hey, when it's the first time you've ever seen a bird, you take what you can get!

So concluded our wildlife sightings for our four days in California, as it was time to head back north the next morning. I had to get the camera out on the plane again as we approached Seattle, as the Cascade Mountains were impressive out the east side of the plane:

I think this is Mt. Jefferson? Not sure what that dark line was from.
Mt. Rainier from about 10,000 feet, right before we descended into the clouds above Seattle


Vera said...

Really enjoyed this post!

jill said...

Cool! Yea I think that's Jeff, but that black line is odd! Was Hood the next volcano north?

when kayaking in the Sea of Cortes years ago we had the pleasure of a free show put on by a group of wild dolphins all around us, who were leaping in pairs out of the water all around, it look just like play. don't know what kind they were but Sea of Cortes is likely a tipoff.