Of all the rare catches and encounters off Southern California during the past several months, the showing Monday of as many as 50 sperm whales has to rank as the rarest--and certainly the most exciting.
The initial sighting of perhaps 12 of these iconic mammals was made at 11 a.m. by Larry Hartmann aboard the Ocean Explorer, which runs out of Newport Beach.
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Hartmann was searching for a small humpback whale that had been frequenting an area two miles off Laguna Beach when he spotted a series of unusual blows in the distance.
"At first I thought they might be more humpbacks, but as I got closer I could tell by their blows that they were sperm whales," said Hartmann, who also runs Captain Larry Adventures in Dana Point.
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When he arrived alongside the whales, they were socializing with one another at the surface.
They never went down," Hartmann said. "They were playing with each other, and slapping their tails. It was amazing."
"Once Hartmann let on about the sighting, other whale-watching boats flocked to the area with GoPros and even drones, and promised exciting footage to local media. (See drone video above.)
That was when other pods were discovered, bringing the number of sperm whales to perhaps 50.
At 2:30 p.m., Gisele Anderson of Captain Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Safari said she was watching two groups of 10 to 12 sperm whales, but could see another two groups not far in the distance. “A mother and calf just raised their heads and spy-hopped right near us,” Anderson said.
Sperm whale sightings are extremely rare in coastal waters off Southern California, and sporadic sightings over the years have mostly involved single males or two males, feeding together.
The larger groups typically involve a mother, or mothers, and their young.
According to the latest estimate by NOAA, the minimum population of sperm whales off California, Oregon, and Washington is about 750 animals, which spend most of their time feeding so far offshore that they’re rarely seen. (NOAA on Monday said it would ask the Coast Guard to issue a notice to mariners, advising them to navigate carefully off Southern California, in case these mammals stick around for a few days.)
Jay Barlow, a sperm whale expert with NOAA, said that he knew of only one other instance where a very large group of sperm whales passed between Santa Catalina Island and the mainland.
While this is an extraordinary event, this entire summer has been peculiar off Southern California, in terms of visits by aquatic species of fish or mammals that typically are found elsewhere.
Rare catches have included mahi-mahi, yellowfin tuna, blue marlin, wahoo, and pufferfish. Rare marine mammal sightings have included pilot whales, Bryde's whales (also called tropical whales), and false killer whales.
This can be attributed largely to unusually warm water temperatures off Southern California and Baja California.
Sperm whales, a favorite target of whalers in the 18th and 19th century, were immortalized in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick."
Their epic battles with giant squid in the dark ocean depths have been made legendary. They've been known to dive more than 3,000 feet in pursuit of squid.
They’re the largest of all toothed whales, reaching lengths of 60-plus feet, and they can consume thousands of pounds of squid and fish per day.
It remains unclear how long the sperm whales might remain in the area, but many are hopeful that this won’t be a one-day wonder.
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