Big Blue, Seafaring Scientists Study Why Whales Congregate at Channel Islands

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Big Blue, Seafaring Scientists Study Why Whales Congregate at Channel Islands

Los Angeles Times, Sunday, July 21, 1996
Ventura County News

CHANNEL ISLANDS - There were blue whales off the port side, blue whales off of starboard, blue whales huffing and puffing everywhere.

With endangered species, it isn't supposed to be like this.
But for some reason - most likely the quality and quantity of local dining options - scientists say blue whales are congregating in previously unheard of numbers in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, particularly in the waters between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands.

To solve the mystery, marine biologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, working in collaboration with a host of scientists from around California, are spending three weeks in the protected waters around the Channel Islands tagging and electronically tracking the blue whales.

It's a major research effort, involving six vessels ranging in size from the giant - NOAA's 180-foot research ship the David Starr Jordan - to the diminutive, the Star Rover, a 36-foot sailboat manned by a graduate student from UC Santa Cruz trying to attract the behemoths with simulated whale calls.

The Scripps Institute of Oceanography has lent researchers and its 300 - foot floating laboratory to the project.
A private boat, the Condor, which runs whale-watching and fishing trips out of Santa Barbara Harbor, is helping with sightings and the logistics of shuttling scientists between the mainland and their research territory more than 20 miles offshore.

The lead whale chaser is the Ballena, a 56-foot marine sanctuary boat equipped to track., both the whales and their tiny. shrimp-like prey.

In the past week, the scientists have successfully tagged, and followed three blue whales. But they've seen many more of the giant creatures, which at 80 to 100 feet are the largest animals alive.

"This is cetacean soup out here," said Condor owner Fred Benko gleefully, looking around at the swelling sea punctuated every few minutes by an arching back or spray from a vigorous blowhole.

Scientists first noticed the increase in blue whales in local waters in 1991. The animals have been listed as endangered since 1966, victims of the overzealous whaling industry in the first half of the century. Scientists believe there were once 400,000 blue whales roaming the world's oceans. Now they estimate there are 12,000.

A 1993 study indicates that the California coast is home to about 2,000 blue whales. And preliminary research from the Channel Islands suggests that this area contains the most concentrated blue whale population in the world.

It certainly seemed that way Friday as the Condor's captain, Laura Tritch, slowed the boat's engine in the midst of a thick fog. "'There’s one at 11 o'clock, folks, "Tritch said. "It's a big boy."

Armed with cameras, the whale watchers raced into position on the boat's port, or left, side and were rewarded by seeing a fine mist of spray shoot into the air about a quarter of a mile away. Tritch inched the boat forward, telling watchers to keep an eye out for the intense blue that's visible under the surface just before the whale emerged. The flash of color is how the whales got their name, she explained.

"Two sprays at 5 o'clock," came a call from the stern, causing a couple of dozen whale watchers to lurch back to get a glimpse.

In unison, two shiny backs heaved up, then rolled elegantly back down into the water. "I think we're surrounded," Tritch said. "It's like a swimming pool."

Or a giant dining room. The blue whales were feeding on a vast swarm of krill, a small, bright-red crustacean similar to shrimp.

They have two methods of feeding: lolling at the surface to gobble up smaller patches of krill - called lunge feeding - or diving 600 feet deep to where the krill are thick as bees in a hive. A blue whale consumes up to 8,000 pounds of the tiny creatures a day.

Sanctuary manager Ed Cassano said the scientists assume the plentiful krill is the reason for the extraordinary number of blue whales in the area.

But since this is hardly the only place where krill thrive, they wonder if there are other factors that have drawn the endangered animals to the marine sanctuary.

By the time this summer's study concludes on Aug. 2, they hope to be closer to knowing the answer.

Krill form dense swarms near the shelf break off the Channel Islands, where the mixing of the warm waters from the south and cold waters from the north promote the growth of the plankton they live on.

With bio-acoustic equipment on the Ballena, the scientists produce continuous charts showing the density of the krill swarms and their depth.

They look a bit like a pointillist painting, the thick bands of krill showing up as yellow and green dots.

The David Starr Jordan is also equipped with a special winch and net that the scientists submerge, open for a few seconds and return to the surface with a sample of krill from a particular spot.

Both these components are easy compared to the chief task: tagging the whales. With a crossbow, scientist aim and shoot at a blue whale's back as it arches out of the water.

A two-inch dart pierces the blubber and implants the tagging device, a bright-orange float with a tiny, $2,000 computer inside.

Once the tag is attached, the computer begins recording - second by second - the depth and length of every dive the whale takes.

The problem is keeping up with the whale and not letting the target escape with the tag. If the whale disappears, all the data are lost.

On Friday the Ballena crew tagged a blue whale in the morning, then spent the rest of the day looking for the animal to pop up on their tracking screens again, which they call "acquiring the whale."

"This guy is pretty evasive," said Scott Beckwith, assistant project manager. "We have not acquired him yet, ever."

The much larger and taller David Starr Jordan had located the whale and was able to report back to the scientists on its whereabouts.

"The Jordan just had the whale about 11 minutes ago," research biologist Don Croll told Beckwith. "He should be up pretty soon."

The average length of a blue whale's dive is eight to 12 minutes, although this summer biologists said they are tending to be a little shorter, six to nine minutes.

Blue whales play at the surface for a few minutes, puffing water through their blowholes.

When they dive deep - called a sounding dive - they leave an unmistakable "footprint" on the water.

It's a flat pool, caused by the tremendous action of the whale's tail pushing downward.

When the whale surfaces again, it pushes water out of its mouth, making a noise that Condor captain Tritch likens to a freight train.

In order to retrieve the tag, the scientists have to get a read on the equipment while the whale's back is above the surface.

Its signal only transmits within a 1.5-mile radius, so they have to stay close behind.

When they're ready, they release the tag electronically and pick it up out of the water.

The animals don't seem to notice they've been tagged, the scientists said.

Another aspect of the project is collecting the whale's dung, which is bright red from the krill diet.

It floats to the surface and the researchers scoop it up in nets, stashing it away to study it later.

Technically, the purpose of the project is to develop a vivid snapshot of the whales and their Channel Islands habitat.

But as Cassano explained, he hopes it serves another purpose: opening more people's eyes to the splendour of the blue whales.

"It's important for me that people know that they have a treasure out here, this is something everybody should be proud of. It's the jewel in the crown."
Ed Cassano, Marine Sanctuary Manager

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Rauno Lauhakangas