The Return of Big Blue

After decades of exile, blue whales, the largest animals on earth, return to the coast of California.

The spring rains are still deluging the California coast as we pull into the parking lot near the Santa Barbara pier. The prospect of a windy, blustery 2.5-hour ride to see whales promises high waves, sea sickness and the kind of bone-chilling cold that can only be felt in the sharp, rain-wet winds of the coast. Sucking in my own insipid excuses, I check in and board the Condor Express and wonder, grumpily, if we will even be able to see anything in the choppy waters.  

About a dozen passengers have taken refuge inside the cabin, including my spouse and our teenage son. Apparently we aren’t the only ones with second thoughts about the weather. However, whales are in the water all the time, I reason, so what is a little bit of rain to them?

As we head out of harbor, the rains recede. The boat hums over the sea, propelled by water. Even if a whale swims underneath there would be no sharp blade to injure it, Captain Fred Benko informs us; the underwater acoustics are as non-invasive as possible, since whales navigate by sonar. Within minutes the sky is blue; the wind drops; the seas became calm; the horizon stretches its limbs across the skyline like a long-legged dancer and the addictive smell of the sea fill my lungs. Whales! Dolphins! Who knows what creatures lurk below, waiting to kiss the air in front of us. My son excitedly rushes to the prow, looking for the telltale white column of water that shoots up when a whale surfaces and expels its breath.

Return of the Blue Whale

While whale watchers are accustomed to tracking the annual winter migration of the majestic Pacific gray whale, summer coastal visitors are in for an even more spectacular treat. Although up to 45 feet long and 45 tons, gray whales are dwarfed by their summer cousins, the blue whale.

“The giant blue whale is an animal that defies all superlatives,” says Benko. “It is the biggest, heaviest, loudest and fastest-growing animal on the planet. In fact, it is the largest animal that has ever lived on the face of the earth—by a long shot.” Averaging about 80 feet long and 120 tons, their tongues can outweigh an elephant and their hearts can be the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. 

Not so many years ago, the blue whale was an extremely rare visitor to Southern California waters. But about a decade or so ago, Benko tells us, the magnificent animal began to be sighted once again on a regular basis off the rich waters off the Channel Islands. Scientists estimate that of the 10,000 blue whales worldwide, about 2,000 now glide through the waters around the Southern California islands.

Unique Underwater Retreat

California’s Channel Islands—Anacapa, Santa Cruz, San Miguel, Santa Rosa and Santa Barbara—may be the premier whale-watching destination in the world. Instead of running north/south, the California coastline near Santa Barbara runs east/west for about 110 miles as do the islands themselves, creating one of the ocean’s most unique underwater ecosystems. As the cold Alaskan current flows south, it hits the banks and the warm southern current that is traveling north from the equator. This creates an underwater upwell that nurtures giant kelp forests, krill and other sea life, including 20 threatened or endangered species. The Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary encompasses 1,500 square miles of rich marine goodies that make the area an undersea buffet for everything from small fish to sleek and deadly Orca.

Chasing Whales Away

Yet, despite the lush underwater landscape, for decades whales avoided the area. Benko thinks he knows why. When offshore oil exploration and drilling off the coast was at its peak, whales were few and far between. “It’s not the production of oil, but the exploration,” he says.

Oil exploration uses seismic testing to find the undersea oil fields. “Those loud noises are the same frequency that the blue communicate on,” says Benko. “The blue whales began reappearing in the late 1980s; seismic testing ended in 1989. It was 1992 the first time more than one blue whale was spotted in the channel at the same time.”

Larger than the great dinosaurs, the whales may grow to 90 feet and weigh 150 tons. Last summer was the best year ever, says Benko, who saw blue whales “every day from April through November.” Summer is also when humpback, fin and sei whales frequent the sanctuary, along with dolphin pods that may number in the hundreds.

We didn’t spot any blue whales that rainy day, but the grays were more than happy to entertain us.

“I don’t think you can ever get tired of seeing them,” my husband says beside me, as we watch a gray’s huge tail fluke slip into the water, my arms wrapped around my enraptured son. “They’re a mystery.”

“Yeah,” our son agrees, a little breathlessly.

Condor Cruises; half-day trips during the winter and summer cost $94 for adults, $50 for children and are free for children under 5. Spring season trips are $48 for adults and $28 for children over 5. Check trip schedules and make reservations by calling 800-77WHALE or 805-882-0088.

Destinations: California

Themes: Ecotourism, Family Travel

Activities: Whale Watching

User Comments

so they are coming back after going whale watching for the first time in argentina, i have been curious about where to see the blue whales. interesting info - thanks.

Bigger boat? I've been whale watching a few times, and definitely noticed that the bigger the boat, the fewer people got sea sick. Probably cause the small boats get tossed around more. I was always unlucky enough to schedule my trips on days with rough seas!

comment nice article