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Travel: On an ocean safari to spot blue whales in the Pacific

Ocean safaris off the coast of California are a wonderful way to spot whales, sea otters, flying fish, as well as learn about the wonders of the sea

File photo of a blue whale (AFP)

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A huge tail emerged from the sea, scarily close to rails of the boat in which we stood. “There she is, our Blue Whale,” the captain of our boat said in a hushed voice that held a note of triumph. He had spotted the “plume” of the whale from afar and sped across a choppy sea so that we wouldn’t miss this sight. I stared at the whoosh of water, which seemed like a fountain in the midst of the sea, some yards away. “She is exhaling,” he said. “And now she will go down to feed again.”

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I couldn’t believe my luck. I was on my very first ocean safari, which had left from Newport Beach in California. My cousin who had booked me on the trip had warned me that—just like on any other safari—there was no guarantee I would actually get to whales. I might see a couple of dolphins, he said, and maybe some sealions, but whales were elusive. Unlike grey whales, which travel in pods, blue whales are solitary creatures. A solitary blue whale had been spotted a couple of days earlier, but a sighting was a matter of luck.

There it was again—the huge blue tail. In a split second it was gone, then I heard the whoosh, and the tall strange smelling fountain emerged once more.

“She is going down again now,” the captain whispered. “We can wait here. She may come up again right here. Or if she has finished feeding, she may emerge further down.” He knew exactly how many seconds she would stay beneath and when she would emerge.

The blue whale is the biggest mammal ever to have lived on earth. Not even the reptilian dinosaurs were as large. The highly endangered blue whales are usually 70-80 feet long and tip the scales at 100 tonnes.What if this mammoth creature decided to slide quietly under our boat and come up for air? There was no time to speculate. Our blue whale had emerged again exhaling water through its fluke (nostrils) and waving its mammoth tail. A collective “Oh!” went up from the passengers in the boat. I peered to see if I could spot its mouth but it had already disappeared into the ocean.

“We will wait for her to come up once more,” the captain said. Our whale needed to come up and exhale through the nostrils on its head and take in a breath of fresh air before diving in again. All this just took a few seconds.

The blue whale was once the most important of thecommerically hunted whales, and was hunted to near extinction. Today, after their hunting was banned in the 1960s, just about 25,000 are left in the world’s oceans, down from more than 350,000 about 200 years ago.

Spotting a blue whale today is really a matter of chance, but the Pacific Ocean is home to many other equally gorgeous species. As we set out into the brilliant blue Pacific Ocean that afternoon, I saw a couple of sea lions lazing on a rock alongside pelicans that were busy fishing.I saw giant elephant seals basking on a beach. On another beach a big group of sealions sat huddled together on a rock.As we went deeper into the ocean, a number of raucous seagulls followed us. The blue shades of the Pacific and the sound of gently lapping water is mesmerizing. Just as I was falling into a meditative calm, someone shouted ‘dolphin’. All of a sudden, our boat was surrounded by more than a dozen bottle nosed dolphins. We were treated to the joyous sight of a dolphin pod with babies in tow bouncing and leaping out of the water all around us. The evening sun had cast a silvery sheen on the ocean. It was at once surreal and exhilarating.

The sea turned choppy as the wind picked up speed. The captain said we’d have to turn around as the sun would soon set and the sea was getting rough. Just as he was turning around, he spotted the plume in the far distance, and pointed out the fountain of water emerging from the ocean. It was the blue whale we’d been looking for. We picked up speed to get there before it swam away. The plumes it exhaled helped him to steer precisely.

As I watched the spectacular display, I wondered why anyone would want to hunt and kill such a magnificent and gentle creature? Why had we hunted it almost to extinction?

A couple of days earlier, at Monterey Bay, close to the beach, I had seen another sea creature that had also almost been hunted to extinction—the sea otter. I watched them diving in and out of the water, floating on their backs, using their bellies served as dining tables or as boards on which to crack open shelled sea creatures with stones they had picked up from the sea bed. One carried her pup on her belly. A man standing beside me said, “Did you know that these beautiful and playful animals were once hunted for their fur? They almost disappeared from our sea.”

Otters in the sea off the California coast
Otters in the sea off the California coast (Kedar Gadge/Unsplash)

I learnt from him that sea otters which lived far up north have fur thicker than any other creature—and this fur, which kept them from freezing to death in icy oceans, proved to be their nemesis. In the 18th and 19th centuries, fur traders hunted otters so relentlessly that by 1911 when the International Fur Seal Treaty was signed, there were just about 2,000 sea otters left on the North Pacific rim. Over the years, thanks to many conservation efforts, the sea otter population has regenerated, though it is still considered an endangered species.

My second and last ocean safari—a night boat safari from Catalina Island—brought me the next big surprise. I kept my expectations low as we set out. As we went further into the sea and the bright lights of the boat hit the water, the sealions, which we had seen earlier in the day lounging on rocks, suddenly got into action. They jumped about trying to catch fish wriggling in the sea, disturbed by the sudden light. And then came the flying fish. I had not expected them to be so big.

Flying fish are about 18 inches long and are fast swimmers as well as gliders. They can travel up to 37mph underwater and when they leap into the air, they reach heights of up to 4 feet or more. When they glide, they can even go up to 655 feet.The flying fish, in spite of having sharp bones, are a delicacy for sealions. As the sealions leapt at them, the flying fish glided away. It was a fantastic sight. The translucent wings of the fish shimmered in the light as they darted over our heads. One fish flew into the boat and we were able to see it at close quarters.

Exploring the oceans, even as a tourist on a boat, is exhilarating. On my list now are the whale breeding grounds in Mexico, whale watching in Alaska, Sri Lanka… Keeping these magnificent creatures of the ocean safe is vital, not just for the planet, but also to teach us to appreciate the world we inhabit.

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