humpback whale breaching
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Humpbacks put on a Show

Shifting water temperatures treats Monterey Bay whale watchers to impressive feeding displays

For the past two weeks, about 15 humpback whales have been lunge-feeding for anchovies offshore of Moss Landing, treating whale watching tours to a show.

Usually, humpbacks’ food is hundreds of feet down, and people only see whales surface for air, before arching their backs, lifting their flukes and diving, says Kate Cummings, owner of Blue Ocean Whale Watch, a Moss Landing tour company.

But lately, the anchovies have gathered near the surface, which doesn’t happen often.

“The humpbacks swim underneath them and then rocket to the surface with their mouths open,” Cummings says.

Whales work together to corral the anchovies, and sometimes several whales launch from the water in unison, she says.

The sea’s surface has warmed over the past few weeks, caused by October storms pushing warm winds from the south and west, says Nate Mantua, leader of NOAA’s Landscape Ecology Team in Santa Cruz. The West Coast’s waters are now warmer than usual, he says.

Those warm seas are likely what’s pushing anchovies to concentrate in deeper waters of the canyon, where it’s cooler, says Nancy Black, owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch, a Monterey-based tour group. Then whales, dolphins and sea lions drive the fish to the surface. Anchovies are also likely following their food, plankton, which hangs out near the surface.

This time of year is normally near the end of the Monterey Bay’s humpback season, though for the last few years humpbacks have stayed through December before heading to Mexico for breeding season, Black says.

Last week, Black’s tours saw a group of 14 killer whales. She’s also seeing “big numbers” of common dolphins, which are also associated with warm waters, she says.

“There’s always something to see,” Black says. “Especially with this unusual sea temperature occurrence, we’re getting another concentration of anchovies that we weren’t really expecting. You actually never know when that’s going to happen.”

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