This story could develop into the North Coast’s marine mammal mystery of the year, and it could prove to be among the most treasured wildlife encounters witnessed here in many years.
For 24 consecutive days (as of Tuesday, Aug. 4), a juvenile humpback whale has been dining on anchovies, sardines and other small bait fish in the San Simeon Cove.
Why has this whale lingered for so many days in the Cove? If there are ample schools of bait fish in the Cove, why aren’t there other whales feeding there as well — as there have been in recent weeks?
I drove out to the Cove on a sun-blasted Sunday morning, Aug. 2, seeking information from the knowledgeable people out there, including kayak concessionaire Cubby Cashen and his assistant, Patton Mann; and Carolyn Skinder, director of the Coastal Discovery Center and Southern Regional Program Coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
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Cashen and Mann are not biologists or whale experts, but they’re on hand every day. They direct kayak renters to stay a safe distance from the whale, and they provide conservation-related guidance to visitors.
How do they know it’s the same whale?
“Because of the way it’s been acting, we’re pretty sure it’s the same whale,” Mann said.
Why do they think it’s here alone — albeit, it has been joined for a few hours or a day by one or two other humpbacks on occasion?
“We believe he was here with his mother when she was weaning him,” Mann replied. “So possibly his mother left him temporarily so he could practice feeding on his own; she may have left him so he could grow up on his own.”
Skinder — who holds a Master of Science in Marine Science and Policy from the University of Maine — said the humpback’s continuing presence is “pretty novel to us. If you ask State Parks people, who have been here forever, they haven’t seen this before.”
Skinder said its markings indicate it is definitely the same juvenile that has come in over these past 24 days.
The juvenile came in with a pod of whales, Skinder explained in a phone interview. She believes that the 22-foot juvenile humpback may head out to deeper water in the nighttime to join its mother and others in its pod.
“The whale doesn’t like being disturbed, of course; that’s why Cubby tells kayakers to keep their distance from whales in the Cove.
The NOAA program coordinator — whose Discovery Center provides educational experiences for an estimated 15,000-plus visitors annually — doesn’t want the Cove to become a madhouse crowded with gawkers on boats and kayaks similar to what San Luis Bay/Avila Beach becomes when humpbacks arrive there in great numbers.
“These whales come up from Mexico or Panama, and the mothers may not have had food for months. They may be starving and have a very short window in which time they can bulk up before they leave. We need to leave them alone so they can do that.”
There is no better place to do some whale-watching than on the San Simeon pier, where the “enthusiasm is shared by people from all over the country and the world,” Skinder explained.
She said she is very pleased to witness “this beautiful, communal appreciation of nature.”
“We’ve had an absolute blast,” Skinder said, educating people about the whales and being stewards of the whales from the perspective of the pier. “There are all kinds of things going on in the Cove. It’s magical.
“When people come upon this by surprise, because they don’t know what’s happening, it’s even more delightful because their eyes pop out of their heads. It’s been the most amazing thing that’s happened in the years I’ve been working here. I’ve seen whales all over the country and the world, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Skinder asserted.
Indeed, few if any residents of Cambria have ever seen anything like what is going on at the Cove. And the good news is that like the elephant seal viewing area, the San Simeon pier offers a breathtakingly intimate perspective.
“One day we had him breach eight times or nine times in a row,” Mann said. “We keep people in kayaks closer to the beach or closer to the wall to stay away from the whale.”
Being close to these remarkable species, mysterious though their patterns appear to be, is a rare and precious wildlife experience for all to enjoy.