Whale Of A Winter

Though Long Beach has made improvement in the quality of its ocean waters in the past year, it is highly advisable – especially after showers like those recently experienced – that the public stays away from any contact with the ocean.  

Which is a shame, because venturing out about a mile or so off of the coast will lead you straight into an oceanic, marine mammalian phenomenon not seen before.

Underneath the calm, dark surface that seems to stretch forever with little interruption, is a high-speed freeway jam packed with the highest concentration of various whales ever seen at this time of year.

“It really is a mystery,” says Dave Bader, School Programs Manager at the Aquarium of the Pacific, or as was originally introduced – and the title that I like better – Aquarium Whale Expert.

By Bader’s count, the waters off Long Beach’s coast are teeming with blue whales and humpback whales (both of which are abnormal, and should by all accounts be much farther south this time of year), grey whales (following their natural southern migration routine), orca (killer whales) that are following the grey whales, and a handful of dolphin species.

The greys and orcas are normal around the holidays – the large whales passing through on their way to warmer winter seas, while the killers follow in their wake – but the blues and humpbacks are the real mystery.  By far the largest animals ever to live on Earth, blue whales were spotted in record numbers over the summer, and the California coast hosts the largest concentration of the animals on the planet.  But not even Bader is sure what they’re doing hanging around Long Beach.

“Earlier in the summer I would have told you that the blue whales were going to leave,” he says.  “Why they haven’t left and gone to warmer waters is sort of a mystery.”

His theory is simply that there is an enormously abundant supply of krill — tiny crustaceans only centimeters long, which blue and humpback whales feed exclusively on – in the water. High amounts of krill would also explain the abundance of humpbacks, smaller but still massive whales with comically large fins that are most famous for their tendency to hurl themselves out of the water – or breach.

Bader’s theory seems likely as he explains the thick, expansive levels of bright red froth that covered the ocean surface in the summer – a result of waste left by the blues after feeding on millions of tons of krill.

“They literally turned the ocean surface red,” Bader says.

Humans, meanwhile, have been busy literally turning the ocean surface plastic, and though blue whales probably number around 2,000 off of the California coast, those numbers were much closer to 100,000 a century ago.  It is not uncommon to find non-digestable plastics in whale stomachs.

“Every blue whale death is a tragedy,” Bader says, also noting that water pollution is not so much a Long Beach problem as it is a Los Angeles problem, since the pollution that runs into the ocean here is a result of trash accumulated all the way from L.A.  Whales passing through are more at risk passing through this area than any other.

The aquarium hosts whale watching trips regularly, and the opportunity to see first-hand some of the largest animals in the world is at an all-time high.  The trips normally focus on viewing greys, but the recent traffic has led to lots of surprise sightings.

“Every day is exciting to go out and see what we can see,” Bader says.  “The diversity of whales and other marine mammals in the area right now is incredible.”



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