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Saturday, April 30, 2016

West Coast Wildflowers

Our trip up the coast in late March and early April was timed perfectly to enjoy abundant wildflowers along the whole way. I wanted to share some of my favorites:

Yellow Bush Lupine

Mules Ears

Pussy Ears

Fiddleneck species

Sticky monkeyflower

Purple sand verbena

Bermuda buttercup

Sea fig

Seaside daisy

California golden violet

White African daisy

Scarlet pimpernel

Wild radish


Douglas iris

Creek monkeyflower

Beach primrose

Forget-me-not species

Prickly pear

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Journey of the Gray Whale

I was very grateful to get the opportunity last month to return to Laguna San Ignacio in Baja California Sur, Mexico to visit the friendly gray whales for the third year in a row. The lagoon remains just as magical with every visit. If you ever want to make this journey for yourself, I can't recommend Baja Discovery high enough. Not only is their camp in *the* prime location where you can and hear gray whales and bottlenose dolphins at all hours, but their staff is knowledgeable, accommodating, entertaining, and continually go above and beyond on all levels.

There's nothing quite like coming face to face with a gray whale mom and calf, especially when the size of the mother dwarfs the size of the panga you're on.

It's a rare thing to have wild animals, let alone an animal as intelligent as a whale, seek out interactions with people. While some may be skeptical this can be done safely for both whales and people, the whole scene is incredibly well managed by the local fishermen in the lagoon who have strict regulations in place and self-police each other. What goes on in San Ignacio is an amazing phenomenon, and also a prime example, in my opinion, of ecotourism done right.

After having encounters like these with gray whales, it's no wonder that people who live or visit San Ignacio Lagoon love these animals. They also tend to have negative feelings towards killer whales, because coastal transient orcas from Mexico to Alaska prey upon gray whale calves as they make their first migration up the coast after leaving the protected Mexican lagoons. I've heard people say that a third of calves or more might be taken by orcas before making it to their summer feeding grounds. Indeed, in the two weeks or so since we saw orcas in Monterey Bay, at least 3 gray whale kills have been observed there, as between 20 and 30 orcas are feeding there!

The whole view is quite a contrast to the San Juan Islands, where orcas (admittedly it's mostly the fish-eating ones) are beloved and gray whales are seen as boring. It's pretty interesting to go back and forth between these two places. Having had the Baja encounters, it's safe to say I'm not in the "gray whales are boring" camp!

This year, I also had the opportunity to follow the gray whales on part of their migration, as after returning to San Diego from Baja, I got to road trip up the coastal highway back to San Juan Island. It gave me a new appreciation for just far these whales are traveling. They make the longest trek of any mammal - 10,000 to 12,000 miles round trip - from the Baja breeding lagoons to the Bering and Chukchi Seas where they feed during the summer months. That is a long way to travel at 2-6 mph, especially considered it's believed they make the trip mostly without eating.

Here's a map showing where I got to see gray whales on their northbound migration this year, in 7 places ranging from San Ignacio Lagoon to Cape Meares, Oregon.

Thinking about the whales traveling all those miles we drove (and flew, to get back to San Diego) was amazing. Even more astounding was thinking that for some whales, this represented just half the distance they had to go!

Another thing that I noticed on my travels is how beloved the gray whale is along the entire west coast, even where people aren't having close encounters with them. For the most part, when the whales are migration, all you get to see of them is, at best, the small puff of their blow and maybe a little back:

Two gray whales off Big Sur, California

This is why they're thought of as boring (or at least less interesting) in the San Juans, where killer whales surface a lot, have impressive dorsal fins, and tend to be very surface active. (To be fair, the Puget Sound gray whales - a small group that returns every spring - do have a devoted following as well.) Along a lot of the coast, the above photo is all the casual whale watcher will get to see of a  whale. Perhaps it's because during the peak of the migration you only have to spend a few moments scanning in any given location to find a whale, but everywhere we went up the coast from Mexico to California through Oregon there were various tributes to the gray whale:

Gray whales painted on shells in Mexico

Gray whale mosaic globe at a cafe in Laguna Beach, CA
Gray whale painting in Big Sur, California
Life size gray whale model at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California

Gray whale drawing at Point Reyes, California

Gray whale mail box near Yachats, Oregon

Gray whale mural in Depoe Bay, Oregon

While I don't dislike orcas - even the ones who make their living eating gray whales - after experiencing these amazing whales in so many places, you can certainly count me as another gray whale admirer!

Monday, April 11, 2016

April 3rd and 4th in Monterey

The last few weeks have been full of so many amazing sights throughout my travels that the blog posts will be a bit piecemeal, but I really wanted to post some photos from a few days we spent in Monterey where I got to visit the fantastic Monterey Bay Aquarium and see California transients on a whale-watching trip.

They Monterey Bay Aquarium is a place that does it right. They don't hold any pinnipeds or cetaceans in captivity but have extensive stunning exhibits and provide excellent information; it's not hard to spend an entire day there. They also maintain the excellent Seafood Watch program, which are the best reference for making sure you're eating sustainable seafood in any US region. I took the RicohGR along and here are some of my favorite shots from the day:

The jellyfish exhibit is always one of the highlights

While the colors are amazing, I think some of the photos look pretty stunning in black and white too!

A glimpse into what a bait ball might look like from underwater

The two-story kelp forest exhibit

Clown fish with anemone in the coral reef exhibit

Staghorn hermit crab

With so many reports of orcas in Monterey Bay over the preceding days, and having woke up with a good feeling about the day, we decided at the last minute to go out whale watching from Moss Landing with Sanctuary Cruises. Good choice! Even just leaving the harbor we saw a ton of wildlife including a variety of birds, harbor seals, sea otters, and an abundance of California sea lions.

As we cruised offshore we came across several humpback whales, the first of which fluked nicely for us.

After one dive, as we waited for the whale to resurface, we were surprised when it lunged upside down right off the port-side bow!

On the next surfacing we got a great look at the humpback's double blow holes:

A bit further on we spent some time with a pair of humpbacks traveling together:

We started motoring away from these guys when the captain learned another boat in the area had spotted orcas! Not too far away were about half a dozen whales, a group of California transients. These orcas are considered part of a different population than the West Coast transients we regularly see in the Salish Sea, though the populations do have some overlapping territory and have occasionally been seen to intermix. In fact, the whales we saw - known as Emma's group after the distinct female CA140 Emma - were seen in the Strait of Juan de Fuca on January 8th before first being spotted in Monterey this season on February 21st. Here's my first photo of a California transient:

I've dreamed of seeing orcas in Monterey Bay, and while sightings have been especially good in recent weeks, I felt incredibly lucky to have seen them. (While of course the very next day they got to witness this same group of whales take down a gray whale calf - which would have been amazing to see - the orcas were gone entirely for several days after that.) We heard they had just finished feeding on a long-beaked common dolphin (a species I still have yet to see!) and when we got there instead of stopping to play after feasting they were clearly on the move. It's a whole different challenge watching and trying to keep up with the whales in the open ocean, especially since it was a pretty choppy day! We were still graced with a few excellent looks as the captain did his best to keep up with them.

They were mostly in travel mode, but we did get to see two huge spyhops - I captured one here, in my favorite photo from the day:

All too soon it was time to say goodbye and head back to port, although at that point it was a relief to move with the waves and wind rather than into them!

We saw a couple more sea otters on our way back to the slip, concluding an awesome few hours on the water!