Mystery Off Long Beach: Whales and More Whales

A deep fog shrouded the landscape in mystery Thursday morning, as a whale-watching charter boat pulled away from Long Beach's Aquarium of the Pacific.

The trip was an opportunity for journalists to see first-hand what thousands of tourists flock to the marina to experience every summer.

The skipper, Dan Salas of Harbor Breeze Cruises, was asked if it was unusual for whales to be spotted off the coast this early in a new year.

"I don't know," he said, "But something's changing in the ocean."

Salas says he's been working the waters off the south bay for more than 20 years, and he's been noticing strange things lately -- dead pelicans, starved and floating in the water; whales with recently birthed young. Right now, he says, whale watchers have identified between 18 and 20 whales in the area.

"Typically, they're gone by the end of summer, but here we are, the first part of January, and we still have fin whales feeding right off our coast," said Salas.

About an hour and a half into the tour, the cry went out: "Thar she blows!" and a pair of spouts could be spotted breaking the surface nearly 100 yards off the starboard bow.

Aquarium experts identified the animals as fin whales, second largest living creatures on earth, feeding and flirting in a loose formation. They would break the surface for just a few seconds at a time, followed by deep plunges into the 2,000-foot trench between Catalina Island and Long Beach.

Fin whales are like giant, moving sieves, say whale experts, ingesting massive amounts of seawater and filtering out krill, their staple food. It's not clear why they're still here in early January, though, as mating and migration patterns normally place them in Baja or beyond this time of year.

Aquarium of the Pacific's whale expert, Michele Sousa, said, "In the past two days, we saw a baby with the mother, meaning that she calved en route, instead of waiting to get to Baja."

Sousa says the birth probably occurred because the mother went farther north to find food, and happened to stop here off Long Beach when she went into labor.

Such oddities are cause for concern among marine experts and seafarers like Dan Salas.

"A couple of degrees here and there changes the whole cycle of the ocean," he said.

It's not clear whether global warming may be playing a role in the changes, although Sousa says human-generated environmental issues cannot be discounted. She pointed to floating pieces of trash passing by the boat Thursday morning.

"It can actually impact their intestines," Sousa said, "Just like if we swallow a foreign object, it can be very detrimental to their health, especially if they get a lot of it."

Whale watching tours leave the dock behind Long Beach's Aquarium of the Pacific on a semi-regular basis every day. Prices range from $13 for kids to $30 for adults.

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