Why humpback whales are in Avila Beach: There's plenty to eat

Species population is reaching pre-hunting levels thanks to protection and lots of seafood

dsneed@thetribunenews.comAugust 24, 2012 

Recent spectacular displays of humpback whales feeding close to shore off Avila Beach could become more common as the whales proliferate.

Robert Pitman, a marine biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, said Friday that humpback whales typically feed offshore but will occasionally come close to shore in search of small schooling fish such as anchovies and sardines.

“This is when they come into the area because the feeding is good,” he said. “They tend to come back to where they’ve had success in the past.”

Biologists estimate the population of humpback whales in the northern Pacific Ocean to be 20,000, Pitman said. That is close to the number of whales before they were systematically hunted in the 1800s.

Humpback whales are on the federal endangered species list. However, they have rebounded to the point that the federal government is starting the process of delisting them, Pitman said.

There’s been something of a feeding frenzy this past week in the waters off Port San Luis, said Steve McGrath, harbor manager. In addition to the humpbacks, dozens of dolphins and seals as well as hundreds of brown pelicans have been feeding on the bait fish.

“There must be just an enormous amount of fish in the water to sustain that,” he said.

All of this feeding activity has also attracted a lot of people to Port San Luis. Avila Beach Drive from the Cal Poly pier to the port has been lined with people hoping to catch a glimpse of humpbacks lunging out of the water.

“It’s been gridlock down here,” McGrath said. “The number of visitors has been off the charts.”

The spike in visitors was sparked by photographs and video of the humpbacks feeding that went viral last week.

Blue whales, the largest animals that are known to have existed, are rebounding along with the humpbacks. They are becoming a more common sight in Southern California waters, Pitman said. Blue whales feed on tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill.

“I think it’s amazing that whales are in the news as much as they are lately,” he said. “Our protection efforts have been an amazing success.”

Photos of whales near Avila Beach »

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