HUMPBACKS
Michael Ellis

About a month ago I led a couple of trips out to the waters in the Gulf of the Farallons National Marine Sanctuary. I have been going out to the Farallons since 1977 and it is one of my favorite places on the planet. Just offshore of 5 million people is a world of seabirds and marine mammals that few folks get an opportunity to see. And I have been lucky, nearly every year I see blue and humpback whales feeding adjacent to the Islands. But this year is exceptional. There is a pretty big group of humpbacks (12 or more) and several blue whales that seem to hanging around.

Both of these whales are endangered and it is reassuring to see them in relatively large numbers. Blue whales are the largest animals that have ever lived. You could fit 5 Brontosaurus in one blue whale or 25 African elephants or 1600 human beings or 2000 5th graders (note I separate 5th graders from human beings).

Humpbacks are slightly smaller, only 50′ and 50 tons! Both of these cetaceans are baleen whales that is they don’t have teeth but use fringed baleen plates that hang from the roof of the mouth to filter the ocean of small zooplankton. The preferred food is a shrimp relative commonly called krill. And right now there is apparently plenty of krill out by the Farallons.

Humpbacks are the most acrobatic of whales. During one of my trips we watched one leap nearly completely out of the water over and over again and then he or she repeatedly slapped his gigantic pectoral flippers on the surface. We were thrilled. “Just like channel 9”, someone yelled. Of course Humphrey is the most famous humpback whale, attempting to go upriver to Sacramento in 1985. He was re-spotted out by the Farallons several years ago. And it was a humpback that was the last whale killed by the Pt. Richmond Whaling station in 1969 or so. So within the collective memory of these long-lived animals, Bay area humans have been killing them.

It is easy to get excited about large animals like whales but ultimately we really need to insure that the oceans are clean enough to support the abundant growth of those little guys, the krill. Maybe I should put a Save the Krill bumper sticker on my car.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

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December 1, 2010