Field Notes 2013
Monterey Bay, California, United States

Katie Dunbar of Monterey Bay Whale Watch Reports. For more information about marine life in Monterey Bay check out year-round daily sighting updates, photos, and videos on their Facebook page, webpage and YouTube Channel.

May 14: Total sightings of northbound Gray Whales this season: 558 since February 18

Gray Whale cow and calf pairs are coming through Monterey Bay! This period has been marked by more Killer Whale sightings than Gray Whales, but only one predation event. Our whale watch concentrates observations on the Monterey submarine canyon edge further off shore where we see many Humpback Whales and Killer Whales, so it is very possible some Gray Whales migrating closer to shore have eluded our vessels.

May 13: Over 20 Transient (marine-mammal-eating type) Killer Whales were counted in the bay, but no sightings of Gray Whales. Several groups of Killer Whales were spread out over the Monterey submarine canyon, and we suspect that they were hunting for Gray Whales. Killer Whales can communicate underwater to coordinate their efforts, and these whales were behaving in such a way that they may have been hunting cooperatively. Often more than one group of Killer Whales will work together to find and feed on Gray Whales. However we have not had any other recorded predation events since May 5!

May 1: 1N
May 2: 0
May 3: 0
May 4: 0
May 5: 1 (deceased calf)
May 6: 0
May 7: 2N (cow/calf pair)
May 8: 0
May 9: 0
May 10: 0
May 11: 0
May 12: 0
May 13: 0
May 14: 0

May 7: A Gray Whale cow and calf pair were seen snorkeling! Snorkeling is a behavior where Gray Whales are very elusive, breathing quickly at the surface, barely showing little more than their blowholes, before diving again. This behavior makes them hard for our whale-watching vessels to track, but it also makes it difficult for Killer Whales to find them too. Hopefully these weary travelers will make it to Alaska on their Journey North!

May 5: Our morning trip encountered four Killer Whales feeding on a Gray Whale calf that appeared to have been killed overnight. Monterey Bay is a very dangerous area for Gray Whales since they are bottlenecked by the Monterey sub-marine canyon which cuts through Carmel Bay and Monterey Bay. High winds nearly blew us off the bay, but we were able to go out and get video footage of the Killer Whales feeding on the unfortunate deceased calf. Sadly not all of the Gray Whales make it to Alaska on their migration, but as mentioned in our April 27 post, they are still an important part of the ecosystem even after they die.

April 30: Total sightings of northbound Gray Whales this season: 554 since February 18

Gray Whales are still trickling through Monterey Bay in low numbers in the lull between the March peak of the adult Gray Whale migration and the anticipated peak of the cow and calf migration. Though we have not confirmed any cow and calf pairs, there have been a few suspected sightings of pairs in the bay, and even a possible calf predation by Killer Whales this week. Our whale watch concentrates observations on the Monterey submarine canyon edge further off shore where we see many Humpback Whales and Killer Whales, so it is very possible some Gray Whales migrating closer to shore have eluded our vessels. However we look forward to seeing more Gray Whale cows and calves as they move through Monterey Bay!

April 27: Though there were no confirmed sightings of Gray Whales today, we did have a large pod of Transient Killer Whales known for hunting Gray Whale calves. There was a large slick on the water and we suspect one unfortunate Gray Whale calf may have been killed early in the morning. This natural predation behavior happens every spring as the Gray Whales migrate north through Monterey Bay and was filmed here for the first time in 1998 for Blue Planet, check out the segment here (WARNING: Very traumatic and graphic for Gray Whale lovers!) Though the Killer Whales primarily focus on eating the tongue and lower jaw of the calves, their remains are an important part of the food web feeding many other species, from bottom feeders in the depths of the ocean, to California Condors soaring the Big Sur coast. (Check out this Gray Whale calf wash up that supported the endangered condor flock for several months last year The sightings of Killer Whales in the area has increased dramatically in the past few days as these top predators get ready for the calves to start migrating through.

April 26: A very unhealthy looking young Gray Whale was sighted by our research vessel as we were searching for whales. This young whale was possibly a juvenile yearling that had lost its mother. We were concerned about the health of this whale because it was covered in whale lice, appearing almost brownish orange in color. It was also very small. It was swimming near shore just north of Monterey Harbor. It was steadily heading north, and silently surfaced twice right adjacent to our vessel even when we turned the engines off. Hopefully it will make it back north!

April 25: Our whale watch vessel spotted two snorkeling Gray Whales. The whales were only surfacing briefly to exhale a small puff of a blow before immediately diving again, sometimes only showing the blowholes at the surface. We suspect this may have been a cow and calf pair, but couldn’t be certain because of this elusive behavior. Gray Whales can be very stealthy while traveling through Monterey Bay to avoid detection by Killer Whales.

April 19: Today we had two Gray Whales swimming very closely together, and suspect it was our first cow and calf pair! They were side by side and we could distinctly see two sets of fluke prints (the upwelling of water as the whales’ tails upstroke disturbs the surface of the water). One was a full grown Gray Whale, and we strongly suspect that the second whale was a calf. However we couldn’t confirm if the second whale was a calf or a very small juvenile.

Apr 16: 0
Apr 17: 0
Apr 18: 1N
Apr 19: 2N cow/calf pair!
Apr 20: 0
Apr 21:  0
Apr 22: No Trips
Apr 23: 0
Apr 24: 2N
Apr 25: 2N
Apr 26: 1N
Apr 27: 0
Apr 28: No Trips
Apr 29: 0
Apr 30: 0

April 15: Still no mothers with calves, but we are looking forward to observing them in our area soon. Total sightings of northbound Gray Whales this season: 546 since February 18. Monterey Bay Whale Watch has been buffeted by gale-force winds the past two weeks, hindering our ability to travel out on the open ocean—especially the past few days. We had to cancel some afternoon trips. However, we still had remarkable sightings, including feeding!

April 13: Although we have not seen any mother and calf pairs yet, we did see a mother with a yearling juvenile. At first we thought the second whale might be a calf, but biologists Alisa Schulman-Janiger and Nancy Black noted barnacles and even a few barnacle scars on the smaller whale, indicating that it was most likely a yearling that had not separated from its mother yet.  We are hoping to see calves start to come through Monterey Bay soon!

Apr 1: 14N
Apr 2:  7N
Apr 3:  2N
Apr 4:  4N
Apr 5:  14N
Apr 6:  27N
Apr 7:  9N
Apr 8-9: No Trips
Apr 10: 3N     
Apr 11: No Trips
Apr 12: 0
Apr 13: 2 N
Apr 14: 0
Apr 15: No Trips

April 6: Gray Whales were skim feeding and even lunging after krill! This remarkable occurrence does not happen very often on the Gray Whale migration, but we were fortunate enough to see a few whales feeding in Monterey Bay.  Gray Whales specialize in feeding on amphipods in the silt and muddy bottom of the Arctic seas, and they do not have as many throat pleats as Humpback and Blue Whales, so they are very different when feeding at the surface. However we observed as they opened their mouths and skimmed krill near the surface, as well as taking a few fast lunges at groups of krill. With the upwelling of nutrient-rich water and the plethora of krill, we haven’t been surprised to see many Humpback Whales feeding, but this was something very special. This is a really rare phenomenon here: photographer Daniel Bianchetta who joins our trips four to five days a week, has only seen it twice before. Naturalist Kate Spencer, who has been with Monterey Bay Whale Watch for 12 years, has only seen it once before. We were very lucky to see these feeding behaviors here again!

April 1: Total northbound gray whale sightings for Monterey Bay Whale Watch this season: 464 since February 18.

The past two weeks have been very exciting at Monterey Bay Whale Watch. This period has marked the peak of the adult Gray Whale migration through Monterey Bay, and in the next two weeks we expect to see the start of the migration of mothers and calves. March has also been highlighted with several bouts of reproductive and courtship behavior. Check out daily sighting updates and photos on our Facebook page or our webpage as well as seeing more information about marine life in Monterey Bay!

March 31: A juvenile Gray Whale was spotted just outside the harbor. There have also been reports of young Gray Whales sighted outside the Monterey Bay Aquarium, possibly feeding on mysid shrimp in the kelp beds.

March 30: Other vessels in Monterey Bay reported a sighting of Killer Whales hunting a juvenile Gray Whale, which appeared to escape. We have been observing Killer Whales preying on Gray Whale calves for over 20 years during the April-May period, but we have never documented a predation on an adult or juvenile Gray Whale. The Killer Whales arrive in Monterey Bay each year just in time for the Gray Whale mothers and calves, and it is likely we will observe attacks in the next two weeks.

March 23: A Gray Whale was breaching! It burst out of the water four or five times in a row, with slightly less intensity and height with each successive breach. We were fortunate to see this behavior on our 7am trip as well as our 10 am trip.

March 18: Gray Whales were observed socializing and interacting with Pacific White-sided Dolphins. The Gray Whales were rolling and swimming on their sides, showing their pectoral fins. The dolphins were interacting with the Gray Whales, often surrounding the active whales.

March 7: Earlier in the month there were about 40 Pacific White-sided Dolphins were “snout riding” with the Gray Whales who were rolling on their sides. At that time the Gray Whales began to exhibit mating behavior and we were sure one of them was a male.

Feb. 18: FIRST Northounders! 3 Gray Whales ( northbound!) in the morning and another 3 northbound in the afternoon (along with 9 southbound).

Daily Sightings: Northbound (N) and Southbound (S)
Feb 18: 6N, 9S           
Feb 19: 0
Feb 20: No trip
Feb 21: 6N
Feb 22: 2N
Feb 24: 4N, 2S
Feb 25: 13N, 2S
Feb 26: No trip
Feb 27: 15N
Feb 28: No trip
Mar 1: 3N
Mar 2: 12N, 10S
Mar 3: 5N
Mar 4: 14N
Mar 5: 11N
Mar 6: No trip
Mar 7: 31N
Mar 8: 0
Mar 9: 17N
Mar 10: 6N
Mar 11: 15N
Mar 12: 11N
Mar 13: 9-11N
Mar 14: 6N
Mar 15: 10N
Mar 16: 4N
Mar 17: 8N
Mar 18: 6N
Mar 19: 16N
Mar 20: 47N
Mar 21: No trip
Mar 22: 7N
Mar 23: 51N
Mar 24: 48N
Mar 25: 10N
Mar 26: 15N
Mar 27: 11N
Mar 28: 16N
Mar 29: 11N
Mar 30: 3N
Mar 31: 1N
Apr 1: 14N



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Gray whale lunge feeding, an unusual behavior
Photo: Daniel Bianchetta
Lunge feeding!
Gray whale skim feeding, an unusual behavior
Photo: Katie Dunbar
Skim feeding
Gray whales off Monterey Bay, CA
Photo: Daniel Bianchetta
Skim feeding
Gray whale off Monterey Bay, CA
Photo: Daniel Bianchetta
Gray Whale
Gray whale showing  flukes as it dives
Photo: Katie Dunbar
Flukes and a dive


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