Thursday, January 3, 2013

Whalewatch Season Begins

It's the beginning of the 2012-2013 whalewatch season here in southern California. For us whalewatch naturalists it's time to go on board the Voyager and, with her crew, take passengers for a three-hour-long cruise out into Santa Monica Bay to see the marine life. From the last week of December through April we go out to look for the whales blues, fins, and grays; common, bottlenose, Risso's, and Pacific white-sided dolphins; Dall's porpoise; sea lions and harbor seals; gulls, brown pelicans; auklets; cormorants; grebes; scoters; shearwaters -- more birds than I can think of right now.

But the very first whalewatch trip of the season, on the day after Christmas, is for us naturalists only. It's to introduce the newest whalewatch naturalists on what they can expect to see and do while on the boat. Unfortunately, the weather this year conspired against us. Overnight it had rained, and after the storm had passed it was breezy and cold. A small-craft advisory had been issued for rough seas, so there was little chance of us going out past the breakwater and into open water. We had to settle for a very short up and back in the small marina.

Many of us had brought our cameras, so it was disappointing that we were denied the chance to photograph any whales that could be out there. But I tried to look for something to photograph, and it was towards the end of our short jaunt that I got this picture of a female California sea lion perched atop a buoy:

Female California sea lion on a buoy

Then yesterday afternoon I had a whalewatch trip to do. This time the weather was perfect: bright, sunny skies, little wind, relatively flat seas. Because there had been fin whales sighted on the morning cruise it was planned to go back there for my afternoon trip. But once past the breakwater the plans were changed because there was a gray whale sighting just a few miles out. We found and followed it and possibly another whale heading south and rounding the peninsula. By the time we got to our turn-around spot at Point Vicente there were five gray whales all around us, although they were not visible all at once. It was a good show for the passengers.

Before we turned around and headed north for home we spied numerous small splashes on the horizon, getting progressively closer. They could only be dolphin. We steamed a bit in their direction, but then put our stern to them as the pod of common dolphin overtook us. Many of them passed on either side of the boat, but there were a number of them that chose to bow-ride. This pleased the passengers immensely: many of them gathered on either side of the bow to lean over the railing and watch the dolphins just below the surface.

It is not often that I have seen common dolphin leap high out of the water. And not having photographed dolphin in several months I was completely out of practice. Of all the pictures I took, this one is probably the best:

You can see more common dolphin in the background. They are such fun to watch -- I never get tired of seeing them.

As the season goes on I hope to get better shots than this. There have been orcas in these waters the past month (the latest sighting was on New Year's) and I'm hoping I'll be lucky enough to see them this season.

(Shot with the Nikon D600 using the 70-200mm VR zoom at 180mm; shutter-priority, with shutter speed set to 1/500 second; camera set aperture to f/4 at ISO 100; auto white balance; normal JPG.)


  1. Sounds like a great opportunity for some great pics. Will have to check out if any such tours exist in my area. Do you use any special filter or setup for being on a boat and all the glare from the water?

    1. i just use a uv filter to protect the front lens element. that's it. the camera is usually set to shutter-priority (1/1000 second) to freeze motion. if the lens is VR (IS in your case) then i've often left it on "normal", but for the dolphin shot i set it to "active" since i was in motion. i wanted to see if i could tell the difference between the two settings. i can't tell right now.

      i did not add exposure compensation in the dolphin shot even though the sun was at my 4 o'clock position -- i added some fill to its body using Lightroom.