Monday, May 19, 2014

Dietary Concerns

"It's a bad day to be a krill."

Thus spoke Giancarlo, our naturalist onboard the Sanctuary, as he gazed down upon the surface of Monterey Bay from his perch atop the wheelhouse, as my fellow passengers and I watched a pair of 45-foot long adult humpback whales sink back into the briny depths, as thousands upon thousands of teeny-weenie marine crustaceans became lunch in one gargantuan gulp. Make that two gargantuan gulps.

Hello again, landlubbers. Meet krill.

I've only one picture to post - the above - and it's stolen from the National Geographic website, as is the text below. Hope they don't mind.

"The lowly krill averages only about two inches (five centimeters) in length, but it represents a giant-sized link in the global food chain. These small, shrimp-like crustaceans are essentially the fuel that runs the engine of the Earth’s marine ecosystems. Krill feed on phytoplankton, microscopic, single-celled plants that drift near the ocean’s surface and live off carbon dioxide and the sun’s rays. They in turn are the main staple in the diets of literally hundreds of different animals, from fish, to birds, to baleen whales."

Okay, back live.

In my quarter century - and counting - of avid Pacific Ocean whale watching I'd only ever seen krill as a Show and Tell curiosity, usually a few utterly dead individuals in a small glass jar on a boat out past the Farallon Islands, 26 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge. But a few weeks ago, on Wednesday April 30, 2014, to be exact, I saw krill by golly - a whole lotta lotta krill - on the surface of Monterey Bay. Buckets and buckets of live, active krill that tainted the water a brick-ish red color, that you could actually see in the sea (what those in the know call a "surface bloom"). Surrounding our boat the Sanctuary and swimming frantically, their little shrimp-like legs paddling overtime to navigate the ocean currents and collect tasty phytoplankton; even more importantly, perhaps, to escape the massive cetacean maw that might soon become their final destiny.

Because humpbacks were on the prowl. Hungry hungry humpbacks.

From the boat we could see a half dozen or so misty spouts in the distance, but we paid them little heed. Our eyes were instead trained on two hefty whales that were much closer; casually going about their leviathan lives, casually lunge-feeding on the blooms of krill as if we weren't even there. It was so cool. And rare, as krill usually spends the daylight hours submerged, which means most baleen whale feeding happens below the surface as well, unseen by humans, during dives that can last many, many minutes. I'd only even witnessed surface lunge-feeding once before, again out past the Farallon Islands, and I remember the spectacle to this day.

For an hour we watched one of the largest creatures in the ocean feast upon one of the smallest, gazed in awe as the two big humps (40 tons a piece?) performed a slo-mo aquatic ballet of startling precision and beauty; working in unison, using their exhaled bubbles to corral the krill into a tight knot on the surface, then lunge up at the mass from below, baleen-fringed mouths agape, for the kind of mouthful your mother always told you not to take. Over and over the pair kept at it - surfacing port side then starboard, a ways off the bow and then aft, their appearance always preceded by that strategic eruption of bubbles - intent only on Food Glorious Food! Even more memorably, a few times the whales popped up maybe 10 feet from the boat (surprise surprise!), so incredibly close we could see inside their mouths and watch individual krill, a whole lot of individual and panicked krill, do their acrobatic best to jump the hell out of harm's way and live another day.

By the way…humpback whales will gorge themselves on krill when it's around, sure, but they will hunt anchovies and other small fish as well. You know what pretty much eats krill and only krill? That would be the blue whale, which can reach lengths of 100 feet and weigh 120 tons, and is the largest animal to ever roam Planet Earth.  Crazy stuff, eh?

Point of this brief post is to bring to your attention the wee but mighty krill - Ocean Superstar Extraordinaire! - but also to let you know that it's once again going OFF in Monterey Bay (because of said krill), and if this year is anything like 2013 the aquatic shenanigans will continue straight thru October. I've been out on the water three times in the past couple months, and each trip has been so worth it. Worth the time to drive down and back from San Francisco (very pretty, both ways), the expense (cheap thrill, overall), the planning (usually last minute for me). So if you're into whales and other marine creatures get your ass to Monterey Bay and get out on the water with Sanctuary Cruises Whale Watching. Pronto! Tell 'em Pete sent you. me and let's drive down together. I can tell 'em in person. Plus, it'll give me the chance to remind Giancarlo that I still need to sample some freshly netted specimens, because, along with the memorable one-liner at the beginning of this post, I believe he also thus spoke: "Yup, krill is delicious."

Whale watching and a daily dose of heart-healthy Omega-3 fatty acids?
Sign me up!
Peter J. Palmer

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