Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Whales Ahoy!
By Michael

Eleanor watches (and holds on) as three
Humpbacks frolick and feed while
circling Del Viento in Monterey Bay.
On our first cruise years ago, Windy and I enjoyed very few whale sightings. Fortunately, one was a spectacular encounter that left an indelible impression on us. We were motoring across Mexico's Sea of Cortez in February 1997, from the islands off Baja's La Paz to Mazatlan on the mainland. From horizon to horizon, the Sea was dead calm, like a swimming pool. Early on our second day, I called Windy topsides to check out what appeared to be logs floating ahead.

As we approached, we realized the logs were seven or eight Sperm whales, lined up side-by-side like cars in a parking lot. We motored up to within about 25 feet, shut down the engine, and drifted with them for a while, amazed. As the distance between Del Viento and the whales grew, we took turns rowing out to them in the dinghy. Windy reported starring at one, eye-to-eye, three feet away.

Skip to the summer of 2011, again in Mexico and aboard a second Del Viento, this time with kids. We hoped for a repeat of our 1997 Sperm whale encounter, but knew it was unlikely and didn't otherwise expect to see many whales. That's what we told the girls, expectations were low.

Of course, how we receive experiences is often a product of our expectations. So imagine our delight when leaving La Cruz, Mexico last December, joyously watching one Humpback whale after another breach, twist, and crash back into the water. Big splashes erupted. The girls shrieked. The show lasted 15 minutes. I wrote about it in this post.

A week later, in what turned out to be the mother of all whale encounters, we nearly ran over a Humpback tangled in a fishing net several miles off Isla Isabel. When I was unable to free him by cutting net away from the dinghy, I jumped in and swam to him, cutting where a could. It was an eerie, powerful experience I'll never forget. With the aid of other cruisers, we saved the whale the following day. I wrote about this in three posts, beginning here.

By springtime, we were in La Paz on Mexico's Baja Penninsula and whale sightings were common. It's not that we were jaded, but we no longer called the girls topsides every time we saw a whale. And then Windy spotted the Blues. The Blue whale is the largest living thing ever known to have existed. They are fast, solitary, and distinctly silvery-blue...and big. They are magnificent to see in person. We saw ten Blue whales (or maybe the same Blue whale ten times) in one day while making our way up the Sea of Cortez in March. I mentioned it in this post.

Coming up the California coast, whale sightings haven't ceased, but neither have they been remarkable, until last week.

On our approach to Monterey Bay, we came across a pod of humpback whales in what appeared to be a feeding frenzy. Three whales (two adults and one baby) circled our boat as we all sat mesmerized. They moved fast, pushing a lot of water, swimming in ways we'd not seen. They would roll over on their sides and open their mouths allowing their throat grooves to expand like an accordian, collecting a ton of water they would then push back through their baleen to filter. They stayed near the surface and were active, moving around our boat through several rotations, like they were corralling us. Windy remarked how graceful and tranquil they seemed. It was almost like a water ballet as the three of them were often synchronized. They came very close to us and we repeatedly urged the girls (and ourselves) to hang on to something, concerned we'd get bumped and jostled by one of these animals. But we soon relaxed and enjoyed the half-hour show. When they finally sounded, we continued on to our anchorage, excitedly describing to each other what we'd seen.


It's difficult to see one whale or two in this picture, but
the throat grooves are clear.

This is a pectoral fin of one whale on its side at the
top left. On the bottom right I think are the upper and
lower jaws of a whale spread wide, creating
an opening that appeared 15-feet across.

At times, they were like synchronized swimmers. Here
all three display a pectoral fin while Windy and the
girls watch from the cabin top.


  1. Woaaah! That's amazing! There's always something to still be amazed at after all... :)

  2. I am very concerned at many boater's idea that 1) their boat doesn't bother the whales and 2) the whales want you to get that close to them. I have seen it time and time again, both while boating in America and in Mexico. People see a whale and drive right up to it. They are wild animals that are being pushed to the brink by over fishing, too much boat traffic, Navy sonar testing, people who "love" them, etc. Don't add to their stress by forcing yourselves on them. It is one thing to be in your boat, and have a whale you did not see surface near you. It is another thing to approach a whale and put yourself in their way (exception obviously for the whale in distress - kudos for that brave act.) Part of your story indicates at times that you have placed yourself within 25 feet of a whale. Please reconsider your actions. I know you are caring people who want to model good behavior to your children.

    1. Thanks Laura. I agree with your sentiment and most of your comment. Of the encounters I related, I think only for the one in our 20s were we possibly out of line. We intentionally approached the whales, got close, lingered, and perhaps put ourselves at risk. In our 40s, we are hopefully wiser. All of our encounters on this voyage have been serendipitous, none involving us forcing ourselves on them. To be clear, in this latest encounter, the whales absolutely approached us, tightening their circle around us. We considered ourselves fortunate and didn't do anything to stress them.
      And could we have? I'm not sure.
      Congratulations on your self-sale success. We're going to miss following your adventure.

    2. If the whales approached you while they were feeding, it's probably because the fish approached you, seeing the boat as a potential shelter from the whales.

  3. gabrielle_sandersJuly 27, 2012 at 8:21 AM

    beautiful photos and what great blog! i recommend boats on tv for more news about sailing, check it out on google and keep up the writing


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