20 May 2008

Whale Watching

In Search of Migrating Gray Whales and Adventure

I finally cashed in my whale watching gift from Aqua. She booked an Oceanic Society three-hour cruise out of Half Moon Bay for Saturday, 10 May 2008. As we drove down from San Francisco the skies were a little hazy, but the visibility on the water for sighting whales looked good. And the reduced glare of a diffuse midday sun could be a big benefit.

To view all the images of this trip, see the complete slideshow or album.

Aqua waits for the cruise to begin on the pier at Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay. She is wearing her holiday "Trust Me I'm a Doctor" t-shirt. (Click to enlarge any image.)

Fishing boats moored at Pillar Point Harbor.

The dockhand looked a little lethargic and inattentive this morning (California Sea Lion, Zalophus californianus).

Some of the passengers at the stern of the boat are watching for whales as we head out to sea. The harbor is behind us to the right, and Pillar Point is on the left. The annual Mavericks Surf Contest is held off this point. Thankfully our surf was relatively calm, though not calm enough for some. The inland temperature was pleasant, but the ocean breeze made for a chilly cruise, as you can see from the attire.

The sea was relatively calm, but as we headed out to sea at speed, the boat pitched enough that us landlubbers couldn't keep our feet without holding on. The captain had a little "talk" with me over the PA "encouraging" me to not just lean against the cabin but to hold the rail. The bow slicing the through the swell made for exhilarating spray, much to the delight of some and dismay of others. We are headed out towards a navigational buoy that is visible on the horizon left of center (see pictures below).

We were out less than 30 minutes before sighting our first Gray Whale (Eschrichtius robustus). The adult whales reach 16m (52ft), about the size of our boat. Their northern migration was in the final stages and made up of the stragglers, mostly mothers with their calves. The earlier, faster groups were made up of males and single females. Not surprisingly, the newborn calves slow their mother's northward trek as they discover and explore the surroundings of their first migratory experience. Children will be children (I can't resist anthropomorphizing). We would see a mix of calves and mothers on this trip. The calves are 4m (13ft) at birth.

The similarity between these whale images and those of creatures in a certain deep Scottish lake is difficult to miss. These sketchy whale images could be interpreted to be many things. I have more respect for the difficulty of photographing elusive creatures after this trip.

The whale images benefit from being enlarged (click to enlarge).

Spotting whales is a group effort. They are spotted visually without the assistance of any gear or specific knowledge of the crew. The entire 360 degrees around the ship are scanned. A shouted direction and pointed arm are the critical communications. A clock-based direction system kept us landlubbers from getting confused: the bow of the boat (front) is 12 o'clock and the stern (back) 6 o'clock. The blow or spout is visible at a great distance, long before the breaching whale is in sight. The spout can rise several meters above the surface and persists for several seconds. ("Thar she blows!") But with the whale is often on the surface for only a brief time, and by the time the skipper would get to that location, the whale would no longer be visible. The hope is to get the boat in the vicinity of a mother-calf pair or group lingering near the surface. On this day a typical sighting would be three or four spouts with one dramatic breach as the whale dives. The entire sighting being over in tens of seconds, often before you could relocate to the necessary side of the boat. A few dives were deep with a fully visible tail out of the water, but most were less dramatic. I don't think we had any repeat sightings of the same whale, but the combination of the migration and the boat being continuously underway makes certainty difficult.

The skipper took the boat around navigational buoy 1, which was in active use for sunning by California Sea Lions. They were a hit with the passengers, and this sighting stood in stark contrast to the fleeting glimpses of whales. Our presence seemed of little concern.

Pillar Point is also home to a US Air Force radar station that adds a geometric modern element to the coastal landscape. The philosophical landscape also has a bit of irony with the close proximity of the Mavericks Surf Contest and this military installation.

Photographing the whales is even more difficult than spotting them. Not only are the encounters brief, but the subject and photographer are in constant motion. The boat is pitching, the water is moving, and the whale is swimming. The desire to zoom in is mitigated by the limited field of view. Keeping the camera pointed at a fixed point on the water is difficult. All of the whale shots shown here are taken with a wimpy 85-mm equivalent zoom, and most have a small amount of cropping. Keeping the whale in view at this focal length was workable, but the trade-off is clear: the whales occupy a small part of the frame. I also had a 224-mm equivalent zoom that I was not good enough to use for the whales. I learned several whale photography tips on this trip: 1) Use shutter priority to reduce image blur, especially with long focal lengths. 2) Lock the focus to save the autofocus from struggling with the high degree of image flux. (My camera doesn't record focus distance, but in hindsight I suspect I could have locked focus at infinity.) 3) Shoot in multiple frames at the fastest setting to improve the odds of capturing the elusive good whale picture.

This movie of the sea lions on the ocean buoy is terrible, but it gives a sense of how much motion the ocean provided with a 224-mm equivalent focal length lens. I didn't bother shooting any more video that day. Be warned, it is very jumpy.

The next two images are of a mother, evidenced by both her size and large amount of barnacles (click for enlarged image). Heavy barnacle growth is a trademark of Gray Whales.

This group of four whale images (two above and two below) were taken within 30 seconds of each other and are either a small group or the same individual.

This image is the closest I came to photographing the elusive whale tail. If you look closely, the tail of whale is just breaching, and the next frame should have captured the tail rising out of the water, instead my slow frame-rate only showed the surface wake left by the diving whale (not shown).

After spending most of our time off Pillar Point, the skipper took us south along the coast in search of some calves and mothers lingering closer to land. We did not see any more whales this day, but the cruise along the coast was a pleasant change of pace for most of us. A certain calm pervades time spent on the water, even with the growl and smell of the twin-diesel screws. This cruise was reminiscent of long past fishing trips on the lakes of Minnesota. I was not an avid fisherman by any means but enjoyed the time on the water for it's beauty, reflection and conversation. The man in the red and black plaid jacket below was the first mate, Jerrod(sp?).

For the last part of the return trip to the harbor, we picked up two California Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus). I suspect they were hoping to pick up some snacks from the boat as it returned to shore from a fishing trip, but this whale watching crew offered them no tasty morsels.

First mate Jerrod(sp?) and fellow passengers along starboard rail with the Miramar coast behind. Those are some nice beach shacks.

On our return to the slip, the morning dockhand had not left its position, although the tide had risen and shadows lengthened. The life of a sea lion seems a good one (except for the sharks and Orcas).

Our sturdy craft was not much to look at, but it did the job. Our actual boat, the Salty Lady, was a fine vessel (see below). The Princeton Special was moored nearby. The coastal area near the harbor is called "Princeton by the Sea."

The Salty Lady was the boat for our cruise. She is skippered by Roger Thomas, who is at the bow working the lines in this picture. The 56-foot Salty Lady offers cruises and sport fishing (www.saltylady.com).

This scene of fishing boats at Pillar Point Harbor stands in stark contrast to the touristy Fisherman's Wharf of San Francisco. It features real fish and real fisherman. Fish can still be purchased directly off the boats. On this day live crab was for sale.

The historic 1927 wooden fishing boat Irene is being rebuilt at the harbor by a local group for use on harbor tours and excursions (www.projectirene.org). I believe it's a Monterey Clipper design, a classic boat of Northern California. To view all the images of this trip, see the complete slideshow or album.