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Sunday, December 16 , 2018, 7:24 pm | Fair 56º


The Santa Barbara Channel, a Whale Watcher’s Paradise

Santa Barbara Channel proves to be a premier spot to catch some whales in action- all 27 local species of them!

One of the most significant changes in the Santa Barbara Channel in the last 50 years has been the increased whale population in this area. As these animals have increased in numbers and, as more study has been focused on the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, it is now known that we have about 27 different species of whales, dolphins and porpoises that visit the channel at various times of the year. That makes the channel, and the Sanctuary, one of the very best areas in the world for whale watching.

Winter Whales
For most people in Santa Barbara, when they think of whales, they think of the winter migration of the California gray whales. These friendly critters migrate past the islands in January and February on their way to Baja for mating and pupping, and pass close by Santa Barbara’s shores, often within just a few feet of the beach, on their way back to Alaska to feed.  One of the great and unique pleasures in Santa Barbara is sitting in a waterfront restaurant in March or April watching a cow/calf pair make their way slowly along the coastline.

When the whale watching industry in Santa Barbara began in 1973, whale enthusiasts were heartened by the fact that the gray whale herd had grown to an estimated 8300 animals… quite an increase over the few hundred animals in the mid 1940’s that had survived the onslaught of decades of whaling. Today that herd is estimated to contain over 25,000 animals!  It is thought that we now have as many California gray whales in the eastern Pacific as there ever were… this population is now at an historical high. Gray whales can be seen at the islands, particularly in the gap between Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands, during January and February. They can be seen along the coast, often almost in the surf line, during the months of March and April.

The Whales of Summer
By far the most dramatic change in whale stocks in the channel, however, has been the reappearance of large numbers of the giant blue whales and the friendly humpback whales during the summer months. These large animals, unlike the gray whales that are just traveling through, move into the channel to feed beginning in May and stay until sometime in the fall. In good years, when krill is plentiful and conditions are favorable, there may be several hundred whales in the channel at the same time. On whale watching vessels such as the CONDOR Express out of Santa Barbara, you often can see dozens of spouts in the area with whales passing close by the boat on all sides. You would think that the CONDOR Express’ skippers who spend a lot of time on the water might get blasé about these animals that they see every day during the season, but, to a man, they will report that they have never gotten over the wonder of being surrounded by these magnificent critters.

The question is why were these animals not in the channel during the 50 or so years prior to 1990? There is some evidence that they historically came into the channel to feed during the summer months but that they avoided the channel during the period from the 40’s to the 90’s. One factor that should be studied is the effect of seismic exploration for oil and the effect of these loud, concussive, seismic shocks on the delicate hearing of the great whales. We know that these animals, particularly the blue whales, communicate with long wavelength, low frequency sounds that are capable of traveling great distances, hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles. It may be that the seismic shocks are in that range and that the whales avoid areas that are not to their liking. Seismic exploration for oil in the channel stopped in the late 1980’s - the whales showed up again a few years later.

Whatever the reasons for the whale’s reappearance in the channel, we can be happy that they are back, and we can enjoy that special interaction that occurs when trusting animals approach us to let us both learn a little about the other. It is one of the most awe-inspiring occurrences in nature.


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