Viewpoint

Watching the local whales

Special to The TribuneMay 8, 2013 

A humpback whale lunges out of the water to feed near a gathering of kayakers off Port San Luis on Saturday, Aug. 18. Photo by Bill Bouton.

BILL BOUTON

There I was, surf fishing near where Santa Rosa Creek empties into the ocean at the south end of Moonstone Beach in Cambria. It was about 6 p.m. on May 1, I had just caught a 1.5-pound perch, and I was having a great day.

But then great got spectacular. About 150 yards behind the rocks, a humpback whale came straight up out of the ocean. I yelled to my fishing buddy and house-remodeling contractor, Jimmy Merritt, “Did you see that?”

We both got excited as the show continued from a pod of perhaps six or seven whales breaching in the bright sunlight.

I’ve heard that whales swim by Cambria, but in all my visits there over the five years I visited Cambria in the mid-’70s when I wrote for the then-Telegram-Tribune — now The Tribune — and in the two years since we bought a vacation home on Lodge Hill, I’d seen exactly the same number of whales off Cambria as I had unicorns.

But over the next 10 minutes last Wednesday, the whales continued to spout spray, shoot up out of the water and breach at water level.

The first thing I thought about was my wife. She would die to see this display. So Icalled her to tell her what we were looking at and, as we talked, I shouted, “There’s another one. There’s another one. I wish you were here. This is awesome.”

We had seen whales earlier in the year during a vacation to Kauai, but they were way out at sea, and we just saw some mild breaching and spraying. About eight years ago, I went whale-watching at Maui and saw some giants pretty close up.

But the rapidity and dynamic launching of these humpbacks surpassed anything I had seen before. It had to be shared.

There was a young woman up with a baby papoose on her chest up the beach, and I ran to her to make sure she was looking at the whales.

She, too, was thrilled and exclaimed, “Wow, I just had a baby, and now I’m looking at these whales. What a great omen.”

I didn’t know what kind of whale I was looking at. The way it came straight up reminded me of a documentary on killer whales in the Arctic. But as I walked back to my car, a man on the boardwalk with a tripod and a 600 mm camera lens said they were humpback whales.

This free zoo we have in Cambria is a major reason we bought our second home here. What with the deer, wild turkeys, dolphins, harbor seals, elephant seals, sea lions, otters, zebras and magnificent birds, this is a paradise.

I never tire of those attractions, but until May 1, the whales were, to me, a myth. The closest I saw was a whale skeleton preserved at Piedras Blancas during the lighthouse tour.

That’s where I learned that federal scientists from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla perch there on a lookout for gray whales and their calves and compile an annual official count. It’s an ideal place because the whales pass within 200 meters of the point and they often stop to nurse their young in the lee of the rocky point.

Last year, 330 cow-calf combinations swam by between April 2 and May 26. This year, 127 did so during a three-week period in April, with 81 of those coming between April 22 and 26, according to the center’s website.

Both gray whales, which reach up to 45 feet long, and humpback whales, which get up to 52 feet long, migrate along the Cambria coast going south in December and January and heading north in late March through May.

They calf off the coasts of Mexico and Costa Rica, while their summer swims take them to the Arctic. Longtime Cambrians see these journeys all the time. But for a new guy, this was great stuff.

I released my sea perch back into the ocean. Those big whales, I’m sure, work up quite a hunger and could use an appetizer or two.

Steve E. Swenson was a reporter for 40 years, retiring two years ago after 33 years at The Bakersfield Californian and five years at the San Luis Obispo Telegram-Tribune (1973-78). Anyone with photos of whales off Cambria can email them to Cambrian@thetribunenews.com for posting with this story.

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