Natural Perspectives: A lucky whale-watching trip indeed

August 25, 2010|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • Common dolphins follow the bow of the boat.
Common dolphins follow the bow of the boat. (Lou Murray, HB Independent )

A year ago, Vic and I went whale-watching with the Orange County chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology on one of Capt. Dave Anderson's Dolphin Safari cruises out of Dana Point Harbor. It was the best whale-watching trip we had ever been on. When the conservation group organized another trip with Capt. Dave this year, we were the first to sign up.

There is nothing like an afternoon cruise on the ocean to beat the August heat. But on a Dolphin Safari cruise, we got a lot more than just a pleasant boat ride. We saw several fin whales, which were a new species for us, plus gigantic blue whales.

Summer in Southern California is the best time to see fin and blue whales. Fin whales are in the same family of whales, called rorquals, as blue, humpback, Bryde's, sei and minke whales. This group of baleen whales is characterized by having a dorsal fin plus throat grooves that expand when the whales are feeding.


Blue whales are nothing short of spectacular. They are the largest animals to have ever lived on Earth, larger even than Tyrannosaurus rex. Fin whales are the second largest of the whales. Seeing both behemoths on one cruise was pretty darn exciting.

Fin whales are characterized by a long, sleek, streamlined body. Well, let's just say that the body is streamlined for a whale. Adult males in the Northern Hemisphere grow to lengths of 75 feet and weigh between 50 and 70 tons. It's kind of hard to think of anything that big as "sleek and streamlined" until you consider that blue whales in the Northern Hemisphere are 75 to 80 feet long, but weigh 100 tons. Both fin and blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere are even larger.

Fin and blue whales eat krill, which are small shrimp-like crustaceans that swim near the ocean surface. When the whales are feeding, their pleated throats swell to gigantic sizes as they take in water. Then they expel the water, using their baleen to filter out the krill. Blue whales feed exclusively on krill, but fin whales also eat fish. Fin whales are known to swim at high speed in ever-tightening circles, herding the fish into a tight school. Then they turn onto their right side to take in the school of fish.

Fin whales have an odd color pattern that differs from one side of their body to the other. The main body is light gray to brownish-black on the back and sides, with lighter-colored chevrons extending from below the blowhole down and back toward the fluke. The undersides of the body, flippers and fluke are white.

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