Big and Blue

Blue whales (Balaenoptera musclus) are the largest animals on earth, measuring up to 100 feet (30 m) in length. Their slow movements made them easy targets for whalers and they became dangerously close to becoming extinct. Even though the Endangered Species Act (1973) and the Marine Mammal Protect Act (1972) were established, commercial whaling wasn’t outlawed until 1986.  Whales still face threats from cargo ships. These enormous vessels typically travel at 24 knots (27miles per hour), which is quite fast on the water, and too fast to avoid any whales traveling in their path. The Vehicle Speed Reduction Initiative implemented by Santa Barbara County has been successful in getting the majority of vessels to reduce their speeds to 12 knots or less. This not only reduces whale strikes but reduces emissions which help with air quality. 

Cargo Vessel

Blue populations have slowly been increasing and today we have the opportunity to see them thriving

My daughter and I were very lucky a couple weeks ago when we were out sailing near Anacapa Island, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura, California. We met up with my friend, Matt, a former POD dive club buddy, who I’ve actually not seen since moving away from California. We got back in touch through another diving and sailing buddy, Dos Amigos. My friends rock. 

Matt took us sailing for the day. It was overcast, the water was calm, and there was barely enough wind to sail so we had a little motor assistance. Such a beautiful day. Captain Matt had Avery take the helm while we were leaving the harbor. She was quite nervous but handled it very well. 

Channel Islands harbor

We left the harbor and were now in open water. It didn’t take long before we had our first visitor, a common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) mama and her baby. She was getting a fun lesson in bow riding but I’m afraid we may not have been going fast enough for them because they veered off after a few minutes. Several other common dolphins joined us, some bow riding, others leaping near us. We love dolphins. They are so fun and curious. 

Common dolphin (Delphinus delphis)

As we approached Anacapa, we heard a call over the radio that there was a whale sighted nearby. We tacked starboard and headed toward the other boats we saw gathering ahead. We hung back, watching and waiting. Twenty minutes went by and no one saw anything. The other boats began to pull away from that location. We decided to continue sailing so we tacked a 180 and began heading closer to the Anacapa arch. Almost immediately, I saw a spout in the distance. “Woo-hoo! Straight ahead!” The whale was heading in our direction, so we slowed down and let it come to us. After a couple of breaths and finally getting a view of its back, I could be certain that we were in the company of a blue whale. OMG. This was my first blue whale ever. It was so incredible. 

Anacapa Island arch

It continued to surface a few times, releasing its misty exhalation, and then sounded, showing off its massive fluke. We were in quiet shock and awe and then the excitement broke out. It was so amazing. We were on a 30’ sail boat near the largest animal on the planet. We were seeing only a small portion of the whale, even though we could see its enormous blowhole, the length of its back, its itty bitty dorsal fin, and the massive fluke, which compares in width to a professional soccer goal (24 feet!).  The majority of its 150 tons was still underwater. 

30 foot exhalation from blowholes big enough for a small car to drive through

Just as we’re grasping the shear enormousness of this whale, it surfaced but we didn’t see the exhale. We did see a pectoral fin standing straight up and then realized that the whale was lunge feeding. How unbelievably cool. We could see the throat pleats as the large mouth expanded and grabbed a mouthful of krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans. 

Rolling on its side while surface feeding

We watched it feed for about an hour. Being there on a quiet sailboat allowed the blue whale to forage undisturbed. And since the other boats had left, we had this blue whale all to ourselves. When it had had its fill, it started traveling away from the island. We hollered our goodbye’s and thank you’s for letting us be there with it. Truly a remarkable experience. 

Throat pleats

Our special time with this magnificent creature had come to an end but will forever live in our hearts and memory. And in images, of course.

I’m waiting to hear from Cascadian Research about the identity of this blue whale. Each whale dorsal fin and fluke is unique and by recording shape and any markings, scratches or scars, researchers are able to identify a whale at a later time and determine its activities and locations traveled. With blue whales, they also record the light markings along the backside for identification. As soon as I get an ID, I will share that with you. 

By sharing my images along with the date, time and location the whale was seen, I’m providing the full-time researchers with additional data. This is known as Citizen Science. If you’d like to participate in Citizen Science, and have an overall amazing trip, join me in Bája for some up close and personal time with gray whales and their calves. Not only will we have several opportunities to pet the whales and be eye-to-eye, we’ll have numerous photo opps. And any fluke images can be identified and we’ll know which whales we met and get the first images of the new calves.

Summer at the wildlife refuge

McNary Wildlife Refuge supports a diverse abundance of wildlife throughout the year.  At first glance, early summer seems to be a quiet time.  Driving past the two large ponds that lie on either side of Lake Road, only a handful of ducks could be seen.  Compare this to winter when migrating water fowl come in such large numbers, they cover the ponds edge to edge. 

In early summer, there are more songbirds and shorebirds. Once parked, I could hear the red winged black birds singing, sparrows calling, the rooster-like call of a ringed neck pheasant, the high-pitched whistles of killdeer, and the deep throaty calls of the yellow-headed blackbird.

What do they mean “area closed”?!

Osprey have returned to utilize the nest platforms throughout the refuge. It appears that only two are occupied. This pair’s nest appeared to be smaller than others I’ve seen, so this could be a newer nest for. The pair work together building their nest. The male collects small branches and the female arranges them the way she wants them. 


I watched the male fly in with a fish. The female was not interested and remained settled in the nest on her brood.  Osprey lay their eggs mid-April to late May and have an incubation period of 36- 42 days. Not sure when these eggs were laid so they could start hatching at any time. Once they hatch, the chicks remain in the nest for 6 weeks before learning to fly and will leave the nest at 8-10 weeks of age. 

McNary Wildlife Refuge is in Burbank, WA, south of Pasco off Hwy 12. From most locations within the Tri-Cities, it’s no more than 20 minutes away. 

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Female bringing in nesting material

I visited the site earlier this week to check if there were signs of chicks. Their behavior indicated to me that there were no eggs or chicks. The female flew off several times, each time returning with twigs and clumps of grasses, and then worked them into the nest. Maybe there is time for them to have another brood. I’ll keep you posted.