Blue whale season in California is underway. Whether you’ve never been aboard a whale watching vessel, or have spotted almost every cetacean species that makes it way through our waters, don’t miss this year’s opportunity to see the largest animal to ever inhabit the Earth.
Blue whales, once near extinction, have rebounded in numbers thanks to strict international regulations on commercial whaling. They can be found in every ocean worldwide, with around 2,000 individuals living part of their lives off the California coast. Spending the winter months in the warm equatorial waters of Central America and Mexico to breed and give birth, the blues then migrate poleward towards the more productive waters of higher latitudes to feed. They arrive in California as early as June and July, but occur in heaviest concentrations in August and September. The last ones may be seen in October before they return to the warmer tropical waters.
Weighing in at a whopping 100-150 tons, or 200,000 to 300,000 pounds, the blue whale sustains itself by consuming massive quantities of krill and copepods. It is a baleen whale, characterized by baleen plates in its mouth used to filter food from the water. A blue whale’s tongue alone weighs about 2.7 tons, or 6,000 pounds, and its heart is about the size of a small car. Long and streamlined, blue whales average between 70 and 93 feet in length, though there are records of individuals exceeding 100 feet. Blue whales belong to a family called the rorquals, a group of baleen whales with pleated grooves on their throats that allow the mouth to expand greatly while feeding.
Blue whales, with their great speed and power, are not easy to hunt. Prior to the mid-1800s, whalers pursued Sperm and Right Whales, due to their smaller size and more stifled mobility. However in 1864, Sven Foyn of Norway modified existing harpoon gun designs and created a cannon that fired a barbed explosive head harpoon, to be known as the modern harpoon gun. This invention made the hunting of blue whales considerably easier and less dangerous to humans. By the end of the 1800s and the turn of the century, Norway, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Newfoundland, and Spitsbergen all hunted blue whales. More improvements were made in the efficiency of whaling methods and equipment, and subsequently blue whale numbers began to drastically decline. The first quotas restricting international trade in whales were implemented in 1946, however they were grossly ineffective due to the lack of discernable differentiation between species by sight. By 1964, blue whales teetered on extinction, with a population between 650 and two thousand individuals. In response to this grim realization, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned the hunting of blue whales in 1966. Additionally, in 1982, the IWC adopted a moratorium on all commercial whaling, with certain exceptions and some countries excluded. Today there are estimated to be between 8,000 and 9,000 blue whales worldwide, and they are considered an endangered species.
California happens to be one of the best places in the world to see blue whales. Sightings frequently occur off the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara, Monterey, and the Gulf of the Farallones near San Francisco. Humpback whales are frequently spotted this time of year as well, and are often more acrobatic than their larger cousins. Other cetacean species that may make an appearance include Minke Whales, Killer Whales, Fin Whales, and a variety of dolphins and porpoises.
Animal Info – Blue Whale. Animal Info – Endangered Animals. 2006. http://www.animalinfo.org/species/cetacean/balamusc.htm.
Blue Whale. The Marine Mammal Center. http://www.marinemammalcenter.org/education/marine-mammal-information/cetaceans/blue-whale.html. Accessed 6/27/12.
History of Whaling. The Húsavík Whale Museum. http://www.whalemuseum.is/whaling-iceland/history-of-whaling/ Accessed
McSherry III, Jack. 2002. The Harpoon Gun. Arctic Website. http://www.arcticwebsite.com/WhaleHarpGun.htmlAccessed 6/29/12