Thursday, June 28, 2012

A fluke - AND poop!

Fortune sometimes favors the dumbass. Last night I was catching up on some of my online groups when I saw a post on the Santa Cruz Community Media Lab Page from the Captain of a Whale Watching Boat. Free passage tomorrow for local artists and bloggers!

I immediately emailed Captain Mike Sack and ingratiated myself all over hisself. Sure, I do have a bunch of important things to do this week, but it’s not like a have a JOB job. I can’t get fired for blowing off a day of being unemployed.

While I was feverishly waiting for a reply to my email I looked at the message again, and here it was that my dumbass filter lifted momentarily and showed me that the ‘free passage tomorrow’ post was from last Thursday; 5 days ago. D’oh!

Ah, but Allah watches out for the sick and the infirm. Very quickly Marine Biologist Dorris Welch replied to my email with a warm “All Aboard!” So I guess it never hurts to ask, even for something that technically happened almost a week ago. (Such a dumbass!)

Anyhoo, this morning I picked up my friend Alisa, who was exceedingly surprised to hear that we were headed not to a coffee shop but to Moss Landing to get in some quality time with the largest living things on Earth.

At 9:30am 30 of us were lined up at the Moss Landing harbor, listening to a riveting lecture from Dorris about the art and science of being seasick. Oh, there were tips about photos, some mention of life vests and something about the whales, but mostly it was a long and loving paean to the Technicolor Yawn.

In short: Watch the horizon to quiet the queasies. But if you gotta hurl, head for the stern. Very important. Go to the back of the boat. DOWNWIND. And don’t bother being polite about getting there. You, Mister Barfblow, have the right of way!

At 10am we were putting out of the harbor. On the way out we passed a nest of cormorants, a pair of brown pelicans, sleeping harbor seals, bellowing sea lions and a fuzzy otter who was maxing out the squee meter while she washed herself. All of ‘em lined up for us like we were on a blue water version of the Jungle Cruise ride.

Note the off-balance horizon, the wet deck
and the hands clutching the rails. In the
distance note the perfectly good dry land that
we are foolishly leaving behind.
All was peaceful, smooth and tranquil until we passed the breakwater and entered the water that had not yet been broken. Oh, whoa, whoawhoawhoa! Our 43 foot boat was suddenly sliding down one trough and then busting through the next swell, while simultaneously sliding sideways in the cross currents. Those unfortunates who had parked themselves in the bow for the view were sprayed again and again with frigid salt water.

Me, the son of a Coast Guardsman immediately looked around for the life vests. But it seems they had been issued to the children aboard this Ship of Fools, and not we, the tax-paying, productive members of Society. I immediately located what I thought was the weakest member of the youngsters and resolved to stick close to him, just in case.

Captain Mike was absent for this voyage, but his place was ably taken by Captain Brian, who had us motoring out at a steady clip of 8.5 knots (which translates to 43 Euros or 3.1 Hectares or something – it is exceedingly hard to make notes on an iPhone when your astride a slippery bucking bronco).

Hanging tough, even as the horizon line
wanders here and there.
We reached the 5 mile point due West from shore and cut the engines. I checked in with Alisa, who was remarkably composed for a landlubber. Good deal; I so hate dealing with date’s vomit.

I looked to the horizon and was surprised to see land still visible on 3 sides. I checked with Dorris, who laughed and said we were only halfway to where the ginormous Monterey Bay meets the ocean proper. “And there” she said merrily, while the boat slid and twisted beneath us, “is where the rough seas are!”

I looked around at the foaming white caps surrounding us as the boat crested a rise and dropped 3 feet like a stone – and hoped we found some Cetacea soon.

And right on cue (were we on the Jungle Cruise after all?), two humpback whales smoothly broke the surface off the starboard bow, blew spray 20 feet in the air and slid slowly back into the depths. Each one was easily as large as our boat.

And right on cue all 30 of us on board said: “Wow.” Because there is really no other reaction to seeing something so wild, perfect, ancient and beautiful as a pair of humpback whales. Just……wow.

Humpback Whale (from wikipedia commons)
We trailed them for awhile, keeping a polite distance, and watched them eat their lunch of strained krill. One of them let out a delighted whistle once, and I can pretty much die content after hearing that.

On the shallow dives you could see a portion of their dill pickle face rise out of the water, and when they dove deep they showed their tail (or flukes – each fin is called a fluke and together they are as wide as the room you are currently sitting in.)

The diving pair of humpbacks then disappeared, went under the boat and resurfaced on the port side. In their place, and again right on cue, a blue whale then surfaced. And surfaced.

And surfaced.
Size comparison between a blue whale and some sort of insect lifeform.
(from wikipedia commons)

And surfaced some more.

Good gods, was there no end to this creature?

By the time its flukes finally appeared I was feeling extremely insignificant in the grand order of mammals.

When a humpback comes up to breathe it displaces considerable amounts of water. When a blue whale comes up, the ocean PARTS for it.

A female blue whale and calf. 200 tons of fun!
Not pictured: Any animal remotely as big as this.
If you took an adult blue whale back to the Mesozoic era the dinosaurs would scatter to get out from its shadow. I mean, the tongue of a blue whale is the size of an African elephant.

The tongue! 3 tons! 3 ton tongue! (Hey, good band name there.)

I asked Dorris if we were bothering the blue whale, because considering that it was about twice a big as our boat, I desperately wanted to be on its good side. She shrugged. “Humpbacks are curious about us” she said, “Blues couldn’t care less. If we did bother one it would just swim away – faster than we could ever hope to go.”

The Sanctuary, Captain Mike
and Marine Biologist Dorris.
And again, all I could say was “wow”.

Our Blue then dove so deep and long that we lost it completely. (When you have a heart the size and weight of a Mini-Cooper you can do things like this.) Our boat then took off in pursuit of our humpback pair.

On the way I decided to check out the rest of the “Sanctuary” - our 43 foot long, and hence teenytiny, boat. The pilot house was crammed with radios, radar, GPS and Captain Brian, who was grimly taking us across the cross-currents in pursuit, while the boat pitched and yawed and hemmed and hawed and gyrated and gyroscoped through every possible vector in 3 dimensional space and possibly some beyond. It may have even been bucking through Time for all I knew.

Captain Brian. Not pictured: his
tree-hugger choice of footwear.
I staggered back to the fantail and entered the cabin. The snack bar was a basket of candy bars and a tip jar. Beverage service was an ice chest, a thermos and a box of tea bags and soups. I was charmed. The head was much like that of an airport potty, except that because of the rough seas all four walls plus the ceiling took turns smacking the evacuator in the noggin.

Let’s discuss other smells. The Sanctuary smelled like French fries, because it runs on re-used vegetable oil. (This fits in perfectly with a Captain who wears Tevas: Hippies!) Anyone who has lived on the coast will tell you that some nights the ocean is pleasant smelling and salty clean and other nights you call up your inland friends and offer to come over and wax their cars for them just to get out of the dead-everything stench.

The sea 5 miles out is much more neutral smelling, even with the large number of shearwater birds hanging about. Sometimes if the wind was right we could smell the exhalations of the humpbacks as they surfaced and spouted high in the air. The very fact that you are smelling the breath of a whale almost makes up for how gawdawful half-digested krill shrimp stink. Phew!!
The one on the right did the doody.

Ah, but there is something worse, much worse, and it comes out of the opposite end of a whale. Our humpbacks surfaced again, and Dorris, over the loudspeaker, was beside herself with joy: “Flukes! AND Poop!”

Now because I like you and respect you as a loyal reader of this blog I will refrain from describing to you what whale feces smells like. I will just tell you that upon seeing that orange oil shit slick Captain Brian turned our boat so fast you would have thought an iceberg was bearing down on us.

That's quite close enough, thank you.
The afternoon wore on. More incredible sea mammals surfaced near us. More pictures were taken. Wow moments were frequent. But in between those times there were long minutes when we lost track of the whales, or they were diving deep, or we were moving to another part of the bay. And during those times things got downright drowsy on our boat. Once we all found our sea legs, the motion of the ocean was kinda hypnotic. The motor beneath us was steady and soothing. The day was breezy, but warm. The kids dropped off first, and their parents quickly followed.

The Sanctuary quietly turned East and headed back to land. The show wasn’t over, but the audience was dropping like flies.

Dorris came around with a quiz: What are the five unique characteristics of the order Mammalia*? Alisa, anthropology major, nailed that one without blinking, thankyouverymuch, but I would have added a sixth: The Siesta. All mammals know that mid-afternoon requires a nap. Even humans on a rocking-and-rolling boat surrounded by beautiful whales. Whatever. ZZZZzzzzz……

Back in the harbor Dorris praised us over the loudspeaker for being one of the few crews who had not a single sailor barfing off the stern of the boat. She seemed a little disappointed by our achievement, however.

As we pulled into the slip the crew of the Sanctuary yawned and stretched like they were awakening from a wonderful dream. And in many ways it sure felt like it. The pictures are nice, the youtube videos and DVDs are breathtaking, but there is simply no substitute for being out on the ocean, feeling the swells beneath you, the wind in your face, whitecaps stretching out in all directions – and then suddenly and silently a fellow mammal as big as your boat appears next to you and says: “I’m hungry for seafood. How about you?”

Alisa and I walked down the dock, experienced the really odd sensation of being on solid ground again, laughed at the dog asleep in the shade of a parked car (mammalia = nap!), and then we attacked the Whole Enchilada restaurant like the other sensible life forms that we share our wonderful planet with.

Thank yous to Dorris Welch and Captain Mike Sack for being so accomodating to a johnny-come-lately dumbass like myself. It was indeed wonderful to take a longer cruise, on a smaller, eco-conscious boat that smelled like french fries.

I have now added Whale Watching to your personal bucket list. Go do this thing before you die. And you might as well do it with These People. They're really nice.

Blue Whale surfacing. Picture this sight going by, and
going by, and going by for about 10 straight seconds. WOW.
(Photo Credit: Captain Mike Sack. Taken from the Sanctuary)
Angus McMahan

*5 unique characteristics of mammals:
1) warmblooded
2) have hair (yes, whales have hair – on their chins!)
3) have a four-chambered heart
4) breathe with lungs
5) mammary glands.
6) Requires naps in the afternoons. (needs citation)


  1. All this talk about poop and children with 3 butt are starting to sound like a mommy blogger more and more everyday!

  2. Plus, luncheon consisting of strained something. Krill, in this case.

  3. You have joyously described most of my outings over the years, though my stories would include the veracious consumption of beer/wine and peanut butter sandwiches while fishing.
    I think I would much rather have close encounters with Humpbacks and Blues. :)

  4. Sir, you have outdone yourself. You have transported me from my quagmire of heartache to a mystical (albeit poop filled) journey!! Gratitude galore!!

    I had the good fortune to visit Maui during the Humpback Whale birthing season (Dec - April). Fluking, spraying and sound diving were visible from nearly every/any point on the West Coast. Folks would nearly crash while driving down the Honoapiilani Highway (Hwy 30) at the amazingly magical sites occurring in the ocean below... Did you know that the mother's milk is the consistency of cream cheese? Gotta fatten those babies up for the long swim back to Alaska! And that the bulls swim below the calf and cow, since the only potential (natural) predator could surface from below? Amazing creatures, truly wondrous!!

  5. Sweet. Transportation is all that I aspire to.

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