The Monterey Bay is swarming with whales right now, from orcas to hump backs to gray whales to, most abnormally, blue whales, the largest animal on the planet.
Although species like gray whales stop by the bay on their way down to Baja and dolphins come to frolic in the food-filled waters during the spring and summer months, UC Santa Cruz research biologist Baldo Marinovic said the real surprise this year is the number of blue whales hanging out off the coast.
"There definitely are a lot of whales in the bay right now, including an unusually high number of blue whales," he said.
Blue whales, he explained, don't travel in pods, making their convergence to the bay in such high figures—Marinovic estimates there are about 20-30 in the water now—explainable by one thing: food.
Blue whales feast on krill, a shrimp-like crustacean that eats phytoplankton. This year, unusually high winds caused a process called upwelling to occur, Marinovic said, bringing nutrients from the ocean floor to the surface where they were then consumed by phytoplankton. Healthy phytoplankton figures equal healthy krill numbers and, naturally, blue whales are taking advantage of the buffet.
While there's a veritable chow down going on, Marinovic said that's not the only reason why there are so many blues.
"Right now there is a weird phenomenon going on with krill that we don't see every year," he explained. "Usually, during the day, krill stay at a depth of about 200-250 meters. This year, we have a high instance of surface forms where the krill get trapped on the surface during the day. Because they are easily seen by predators, they bunch closer together for protection."
Leaving a blue whale the easy task of swimming by, without having to dive, for a big gulp of krill.
"It's low hanging fruit," Marinovic continued. "They get to fill with very little effort and the whales are taking advantage of that."
Blue whale vocalizations can travel 800-1000 miles, he said. When the message got on the grape vine that food was aplenty in the Monterey Bay, blue whales started making the swim.
Not only are blue whales loading up on food that’ll be turned into blubber for warmth and fuel during periods of want, the high number of large marine mammals are proving a boon for the local whale watching industry.
"We've added trips to accommodate the demand," said Jenny O'Leary, an employee at Santa Cruz Whale Watching, which operates the Velocity out of the . "We're actually turning people away because we don't have enough tickets available."
O'Leary said their tours typically sell out in the summer months though there are always a few tickets up for grabs the morning of a tour. This year, however, hopeful whale watchers looking to jump aboard are out of luck as tours are selling out a week ahead of time.
According to sighting reports on the business's website, between 10 and 30 blue whales are being spotted during every tour as well as other species. O'Leary said at least one tour leaves the harbor everyday, if not more.
Tours don’t have to travel far to see the whales, Marinovic said, as almost all are within 20 miles of shore and many eight or less. While the bay’s blue whales aren’t the largest in the world’s oceans, they are still huge, coming in at around 80 feet.
As quickly as they've converged in the bay, they can high tail it as soon as the food dries up, making now no better time for visitors and locals to go for a whale watching tour.
“This is a great opportunity right now for the general public, people who might never get to see a whale, to get out and see one,” Marinovic said. “From a research perspective, it’s interesting, but if you are someone who just wants to go out and see some whales, now’s the time.”
If you have any photos of whales to the bay, please upload them to the photo gallery.