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Monterey Bay humpbacks made The New York Times!

With Extra Anchovies, Deluxe Whale Watching
Published: November 24, 2013

MONTEREY, Calif. — It began with the anchovies, miles and miles of them, their silvery blue bodies thick in the waters of Monterey Bay.

Then the sea lions came, by the thousands, from up and down the California coast, and the pelicans, arriving in one long V-formation after another. Fleets of bottlenose dolphins joined them.

But it was the whales that astounded even longtime residents — more than 200 humpbacks lunging, breaching, blowing and tail flapping — and, on a recent weekend, a pod of 19 rowdy orcas that briefly crashed the party, picking off sea lions along the way.

“I can’t tell you where to look,” Nancy Black, a marine biologist leading a boat full of whale watchers last week, said as the water in every direction roiled with mammals. “It’s all around.”

For almost three months, Monterey and nearby coastal areas have played host to a mammoth convocation of sea life that scientists here say is unprecedented in their memories, inviting comparisons to African scenes like the wildebeest migration or herds of antelope on the Serengeti.

Humpback whales, pelicans and sea lions are all common summer sights off the Monterey coast, with its nutrient-rich waters. But never that anyone remembers have there been this many or have they stayed so long, feeding well into November.

“It’s a very strange year,” said Baldo Marinovic, a research biologist with the Institute for Marine Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

What has drawn the animals is a late bloom of anchovies so enormous that continuous, dense blankets of the diminutive fish are visible on depth sounders. The sea lions, sea birds and humpbacks (which eat an average of two tons of fish a day) appear to have hardly made a dent in the population. Last month, so many anchovies crowded into Santa Cruz harbor that the oxygen ran out, leading to a major die-off.

Marine researchers are baffled about the reason for the anchovy explosion.

“The $64,000 question is why this year?” said Dr. Marinovic, who noted that anchovies had been unusually scarce for the last five or six years and that when they do thrive, they usually appear in the spring and early summer.

He and other scientists speculated that a convergence of factors — a milder than usual fall, a strong upwelling of colder water, the cycling of water temperatures in the bay — have created what Dr. Marinovic called “the perfect storm.”

“Now they’re all kind of concentrating on the coast,” he said of the anchovies. “They seem to seek out Monterey Bay because the water tends to be a little warmer and the eggs will develop quickly.” The fish, he said, “are providing a feast for all these things that feed on them.”

The frenzy has been a boon for whale-watching companies like Monterey Bay Whale Watch, of which Ms. Black is the owner, and for their customers.

In a normal season, passengers are lucky to see one or two humpbacks and a single whale breaching. On the trip last week, more than 60 whales were spotted feeding in the deep water of the canyon offshore, and the breaches were almost too numerous to count — in one case, two whales arced their bodies out of the water in unison, like competitors in an Olympic synchronized swimming event. Foul-smelling whale breath occasionally permeated the air.

Ms. Black said that for the first time this year — she has studied whales here since 1986, specializing in orcas — she has seen evidence that the humpbacks are feeding cooperatively with groups of thousands of sea lions. The sea lions dive simultaneously, surfacing a few minutes later. They herd the anchovies into tight balls, called bait balls, and the whales scoop them up, several hundred in a mouthful. Food is plentiful enough that the giant cetaceans — an adult male humpback measures 45 to 50 feet in length, Ms. Black said, and weighs a ton per foot — can afford to take breaks to play.

The humpback population off the California coast, once rapidly decreasing, has rebounded with restrictions on hunting, to about 2,000, experts say. Many whales and sea lions have been congregating to feed near the rim of the Monterey Submarine Canyon offshore. Bottlenose dolphins — groups of 100 or more have been spotted this year — feed closer in.

In most years, the humpbacks would have departed for Mexico weeks ago and the pelicans flown south. But with the anchovies still in abundance, no one is sure how long they will stay. They could remain through December, scientists said, or depart any day.

“I hope it doesn’t end,” Ms. Black said. “But it will.”

A version of this article appears in print on November 25, 2013, on page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: With Extra Anchovies, Deluxe Whale Watching.

Let’s Go Fishin’: Whales and red tide

Let’s Go Fishin’: Whales and red tide
Scotts Valley Press-Banner
by Mike Baxter
Oct 03, 2013

Most people associate fall with the darkening of leaves on the trees. The past few years the inshore waters of the ocean have made color changes in the fall with the arrival of red tides. Humpback whales have also made a late season showing right outside Capitola.

The red tide is not uncommon, but is usually associated with the summer months. This fall, it has bloomed in the tidal waters along the north side of Monterey Bay. The red tide, coupled with massive amounts of anchovies, has even created a die-off with some inshore fish. The lack of dissolved oxygen and semi-toxic tide can create a fatal environment for these fish.

The whales don’t seem to mind a little red tide as they feast on the small baitfish right outside the mooring buoys in Capitola. Small boats, charter boats, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are getting in on the whale watching action!

However, there are restrictions for approaching these giant mammals that are set by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and agreed on through the International Whaling Commission. The boundary is set at 100 meters. If these whales come to you as you are at idle in a vessel not making way, then consider it a treat. Otherwise, keep a safe distance of 100 meters.

Local charter operations like the Stagnaro’s have been making several trips a week and encountering up to 20 different humpbacks on a given day. Whale trips have had a few types of dolphin sightings like Risso`s and Bottlenose along with other marine mammals and many types of birds.

Fishing in the Monterey Bay has slowed down. Albacore have been hit or miss and many more misses than hits.

Salmon season closes October 6, and was a great season here in local waters. Rock fish and lingcod continue to bite from Natural Bridges up to Ano Nuevo. Halibut fishing has been slower, and many anglers are already anticipating the crab season that will start November 2.

– Mike Baxter has fished in the Monterey Bay Area since he was a boy and has been a licensed charter boat captain for more than 20 years. Contact him at

A whale of a time: Anchovies bring record numbers of humpbacks

By Jason Hoppin
Santa Cruz Sentinel
POSTED:   09/13/2013 04:42:59 PM PDT

SANTA CRUZ — Unprecedented numbers of whales have invaded Monterey Bay, on the hunt for epic schools of anchovies and delighting nature lovers and sightseers.

Local whale-watch pilots say pods of whales are joining herds of sea lions and flocks of birds to dine on the tiny green fish. Estimates range into the hundreds for humpback whales, though blue whales have been spotted too.

“It’s the most whales that I’ve seen since I’ve been doing this, over 26 years,” said marine biologist Nancy Black, of Monterey Bay Whale Watch. “There are so many humpbacks in the bay.”

Some say they numbers have spiked in recent days, while others say they’ve been here for several weeks. Humpback sightings usually peak later in the year, but volumes of whales are being reported near Moss Landing and Santa Cruz.

The marine creatures are drawn by massive schools of anchovies, with Black spotting one school that she estimated to be 200-feet deep and more than a mile long.

“You can see it on the depth finder,” Black said. “It’s really amazing. I don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

Ken Stagnaro of Santa Cruz Whale Watch said he’s recently captained trips where dozens of whales were spotted not far from Santa Cruz.

“There’s a bay full of whales out there,” Stagnaro said. “(Tuesday’s) trip we probably saw 30 to 40 humpback whales within two to three miles of Santa Cruz.”

Whales usually come to Monterey Bay for krill. Stagnaro said anchovies are cyclical, typically showing up in late summer when local stream flows are low and don’t dilute the salinity of near-shore saltwater. That creates conditions the anchovies like, he said.

Giancarlo Thomae, a marine biologist with Moss Landing’s Sanctuary Cruises, said he ventured onto the bay with a couple friends on kayaks Wednesday, and saw numerous whales, Risso’s dolphins and even an elephant seal.

“It’s just phenomenal,” Thomae said.

Whales appear to be congregating near the edges of the underwater Soquel Canyon. Even though Labor Day signals the unofficial end of the local tourist season, tour guides say crowds have been pretty strong.

They also wanted to remind people on the water that there are strict rules against approaching marine mammals too closely. In addition, Thomae said only experienced kayakers should go whale-watching on personal watercraft, noting that tides can shift suddenly over deep waters.

Whales are vacationing in Santa Cruz County

Monterey Whale Watching – Whales Are Vacationing in Santa Cruz County

SANTA CRUZ — Santa Cruz County is playing host this month to scores of whales, including blue whales, often 70 feet long and weighing more than 100 tons.

Normally active during the winter months in Santa Cruz County, about 20,000 breaching gray whales can be seen during their annual migration along the California coast. However, krill will be plentiful this month, so the Santa Cruz County Conference & Visitors Council encourages travelers to visit the area to take advantage of the activity in the bay and opt for a whale-watching excursion while visiting.

Blue whales, fin whales and orcas have been spotted in the nutrient-rich waters of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

Most whale-watching excursions last three to four hours, and prices start at around $40 per person except for chartered tours.

The sanctuary’s Exploration Center near the Santa Cruz Wharf is designed to give visitors a greater appreciation of the sanctuary. Part of the 12,400-square-foot center includes an open-ocean mini-theater, which uses migratory species such as whales to tell the story of the three seasons of the sanctuary and how they affect the weather, water surface conditions and kelp forest growth.

For a full listing of companies offering whale-watching excursions in Santa Cruz County, or for information about the Exploration Center and a guide to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, call 800-833-3494 or visit

June 30, 2013

My Blue Heaven: Abundance of world’s largest creature seen in Monterey Bay

By Jason Hoppin

Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted:   07/08/2013

SANTA CRUZ — Monterey Bay is singing the blues.

Majestic blue whales are being spotted around Monterey Bay in recent days, as viewing season for the largest animal in history reaches its peak.

Whale-watching captains are reporting sightings of more than a dozen of the endangered behemoths, which seem to be venturing into the bay with greater frequency in recent years.

“(People) are in awe. I hear a lot of gasps, especially when those massive tail flukes come up,” said Dorris Welch, co-owner of Santa Cruz-based Sanctuary Cruises. “Some people just say it’s a life-changing experience.”

Because they dive deep and long, blue whales can be elusive compared to more visible humpback whales, a playful creature that has provided boaters, kayakers and even surfers with more than a few thrills.

But the blues are being seen with relative frequency, and are proving a draw for people who pine for a firsthand look.

“It’s pretty much every trip right now. (Sunday) we saw probably no less than 10,” said Ken Stagnaro of Santa Cruz Whale Watching. “Saturday morning, I followed a whale that just kept taking me into more whales.”

Due to high spring winds that have increased the nutrient levels in the water, it has been a particularly good season for whale watching. There also have been several reports of pods of Risso’s dolphins, a large, snub-nosed variety that has been seen toying with blue whales.

“They kind of play with them, kind of harass them,” Stagnaro joked. “On average, it can be kind of a boring lifestyle so they need something to keep them entertained.”

Giancarlo Thomae, a marine biologist with Sanctuary Cruises, said he believes there’s as many as 15 blues in the bay, with some coming very close to shore near Moss Landing.

“People are very stoked because they’re the largest animals that ever lived,” Thomae said. “They dwarf the boat “… people get really excited.”

Beginning about two weeks ago, boaters also have seen harder-to-spot endangered leatherback sea turtles. Now the state’s official marine reptile, the giant turtles travel from Indonesia to feed on the region’s abundance of jellyfish.

Leatherbacks typically stay until August, when they venture back across the Pacific Ocean.


A whale of a show: Krill bloom draws blues and humpbacks to bay

By Jason Hoppin
Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted:   06/17/2013 06:16:57 PM PDT

MOSS LANDING — Drawn by an abundance of food, pods of whales are frolicking across Monterey Bay, delighting oceangoing whale-watchers who spent the weekend thrilled by one of nature’s greatest shows.

Boat captains estimated scores of whales — including about 30 majestic blue whales, the largest creature to have ever roamed the earth — feeding on krill, particularly over the deep-water Soquel Canyon, where one boat reported a Saturday “feeding frenzy” by 50 whales.

“There was an extraordinary number of humpback and blue whales,” said Nancy Black, a marine biologist with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. “Saturday was the big day.”

Playful humpbacks are regular guests of the Central Coast, but endangered blue whales usually don’t make an appearance until later in the year. While fewer than the 70 humpbacks currently estimated by Black to by in the Monterey Bay, the large presence of blue whales is unusual.

The whale crush is driven by spring winds, which shove warmer surface water aside and allow cooler, nutrient-rich waters to well up from the bottom of the sea. That “upwelling” causes a boom in lower-level species such as krill and squid, which feed whales and dolphins, respectively.

Ken Stagnaro of Santa Cruz-based Stagnaro Charters found a “feeding frenzy” over Soquel Canyon, where schools of krill can get pinned against canyon walls by the tides and giving whales an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord.

“Side by side, dozens of blue and humpback whales continually surface-lunged at massive schools of krill, sometimes swimming within mere yards of the boat,” Stagnaro wrote in an email to the Sentinel. He was about seven miles off shore. “We sat nearly motionless for nearly 90 minutes as the largest animals in the world gorged on the sea surface for everyone to see.”

Lunge-feeding is a technique of baleen whales, which swim beneath their prey and can release a circle of air bubbles, called a “bubble net.” With the prey trapped and confused by air bubbles, the whale lunges skyward from the depths with mouth agape, breaching the surface.

Black also has spotted numerous killer whales on the ocean, likely here to hunt down the thousands of dolphins found offshore. She said the orcas have also been playful, spotting some while ferrying a tour group around the bay on Sunday.

“There’s just lots of wildlife around right now, lots of animals, lots of whales,” Black said. “It’s because of the wind.”

Whale-watching peak: Orcas, humpbacks, blue whales spotted in bay

By ROMAIN FONSEGRIVES — Santa Cruz Sentinel

Posted:   06/18/2012 06:22:47 PM PDT

SANTA CRUZ – Monterey Bay whale-watching tours usually provide onlookers with unforgettable sights of majestic, playful humpback whales. But in recent days, cruisers had a stroke of luck, encountering orcas and a blue whale – two much rarer species to see.

These encounters did not draw as much attention as last fall, when humpback whales paraded just a few hundred yards from Santa Cruz shores, shedding international light on Monterey Bay’s wildlife. But glimpses of orcas and blue whales are always an amazement, said Kenny Stagnaro of Stagnaro Sport Fishing, Charters and Whale Watching Cruises.

“It’s not uncommon at all to see them, but it’s definitely not an every-day occurrence,” Stagnaro said of the orcas.

To witness a blue whale breaching the water is a precious sight, Stagnaro said. An endangered species, blue whales comprise a world population that ranges from 5,000 to 12,000, according to a 2002 report of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife from Canada.

A group was cruising just a few miles south of Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor on Saturday, Stagnaro said, when those aboard suddenly spotted male and a female orcas coming to the surface. Transient killer whales such as these two are regularly observed in the Monterey Bay, navigating in pods and preying on other mammals including seals, sea lions, dolphins or other whales’ calves.

“They’ll chase pretty much every mammal smaller than they are,” said Giancarlo Thomae, a marine biology senior student at UC Santa Cruz, who works as a naturalist for cruising companies in the Monterey Bay.

“I’m sure these two weren’t by themselves,” Stagnaro added. “Their family were probably a few miles off, but we didn’t get to see them.”

Cruising ship Velocity tagged along with the predators for 40 minutes, Stagnaro said. The killer whales’ dorsals were leaping out of the water every once in a while above the Soquel Canyon. Yet, whale-watchers witnessed no kill Saturday.

“They were on patrol,” Stagnaro said. “The Monterey Canyon is a pretty well-known hunting zone for killer whales. It drops from 300 feet to 3,000 feet deep. Experts say the canyon is a kind of echo chamber that makes their echo location more effective.”

While being interviewed by phone Monday, Stagnaro was tailing a 90-feet blue-whale, he said.

“This thing is huge, we are feeling really small right now,” Stagnaro said. “This is really close to the shoreline to see a blue whale, but there’s a lot of krill in this area.”

A charter boat operator for 28 years in Santa Cruz, Stagnaro said he had not seen so much krill in the Monterey Bay for years. With the crunchy crustacean blooming all over the Monterey

“It popped up right next to the boat with its mouth wide open before rolling over on its belly,” Stagnaro said. “The water just turned plain red because of the krill’s color. It’s been an amazing show.”

“That blue whale was absolutely massive,” said Debbie Ojeda, one of Stagnaro’s customers, after coming back ashore Monday. “I know people who’ve been on whale-watching trips and who’ve never seen anything. So I definitely feel lucky.”

Whale watching season is approaching its climax, Thomae said.

“We happened to see more whales since the first part of May,” Thomae said. “And now we’re approaching krill’s peak production. Anytime during next month will be the best to go see these animals.”

Stagnaro’s cruises also caught a glimpse of two fin whales and around 300 humpback whales in the past couple of weeks. But orcas and blue whales, although regular visitors of the bay, do not come across the crew more than 30 or 40 times a year, the captain said.

“It exceeds most people’s expectations,” said Stagnaro, thrilled. “They don’t believe their own eyes.”

Follow Romain Fonsegrives on Twitter @ romanuevo.

WHAT: Stagnaro Sport Fishing, Charters and Whale Watching Cruises

WHERE: Cruises leave from the Santa Cruz Small Craft Harbor. The Stagnaro office is located at 500 Seventh Ave., Santa Cruz.

INFORMATION: Visit or call 831-427-0230.

Dan Haifley, Our Ocean Backyard: California gray whales now passing through our waters

Whale Watching Monterey California – Monterey CA Whale Watching

Whale Watching Monterey California

By Dan Haifley
Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted:   02/01/2013 02:04:20 PM PST

California gray whales are gliding through Central Coast waters on their 5,000 to 6,000 mile trek from their feeding grounds around Alaska’s Bering Sea south to where they rest, breed and give birth in warmer Mexico.

The end of January was the peak of their southward migration although they’re still coming and soon they’ll be heading back our way on their return trip north.

Since December, groups of up to 10 have been spotted at the edge of the Monterey Bay Submarine Canyon while individuals or pairs have been seen closer to shore. They’re best observed from a boat piloted by an experienced whale watching captain and crew.

“Seeing these animals is something that everyone should experience,” said Kenny Stagnaro, owner and skipper of the vessel Velocity, which frequently passes in and out of the Santa Cruz harbor channel for whale watching trips. “They are truly amazing creatures.”

Their southern destinations are warm Baja California waters where females give birth, then nurse and nurture their young. They include but aren’t limited to Laguna San Ignacio, Laguna Guerrero Negro, Laguna Ojo de Liebre and Magdalena Bay.

Mating usually occurs there but it can also happen during their migration south. The gestation period of the gray whale is about a year. Calves are born live at around 15 feet long and 1,500 pounds. They put on weight and grow as they nurse on mother’s milk, more than half of which is fat.

Around the middle of February, the California gray whales head north for summer feeding off Alaska. They primarily feed on a small crustacean called amphipod macrocephela which is nourished by algae that drops from sea ice in the Bering and Chukchi seas. They’ll also eat smaller amphipods, which look like a kind of shrimp under a microscope. If they need nourishment during their migration they forage in the mud, sand and silt at ocean’s bottom, unlike other baleen whales that skim the surface or gulp food in the water column.

The best period for viewing the northward migration is February through May. This leg of their journey tends to be more social and leisurely than the southbound trip. Mothers and calves can be spotted in April and May, and sometimes they travel close enough to shore that they can be seen from high points along the coast.

Their coastal highway gets very busy in both directions as the southern and northern migrations coincide during February, although the southbound whales travel further offshore than the northbound ones do.

They travel from a sea with a water temperature of 38 degrees to lagoons that are 70 degrees. When they leave Alaska they can have 6 to 8 inches of blubber to sustain them on journey. By the time they return they have just 2-3 inches of blubber left. Mothers need more, said Stagnaro, to nurse their young on the trip north.

Their population is a little more than 20,000, an increase from previous years. At maturity, they can be up to 50 feet long and weight up to 40 tons. Some whales can live to be 80 years old.

Observers remark that gray whales are less charismatic than others. That may be true while they are here, but they become animated while feeding off Alaska. While some can be friendly to humans in Baja California, the whales are not as approachable during mating and birthing.

Because the sea off California is their thoroughfare and not a café or playground, grays do not display the personality here that Orcas or Humpbacks do. But their speed and force is constant, said Stagnaro, so finding and following them is easier. “They are very majestic to watch, especially when they breech,” he says.

Dan Haifley is executive director of O’Neill Sea Odyssey. He can be reached at

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