TODAY, I saw the largest creatures on earth.
When I woke up this morning, I had a feeling that the day was going to be special. Mysterious, tropical clouds rested on the mountain tops. The air felt warm and wet - not dry as it usually is in southern California. My clothes stuck to my skin, but I welcomed this new kind of weather.
Because I had heard that along with the weather, the day had brought some very special guests to my neighborhood. And this morning, I was going to meet them.
I picked up my friend Maryam, and we drove to the Santa Barbara harbor. We met several other friends there, too. Together, we all climbed onto a boat called The Condor. Fred, our captain, started the ship's engines and we roared out into the Santa Barbara Channel.
By now, yellow sunlight filled the sky. The ocean was so flat that hardly a wave or a ripple slowed us down. Less than a mile from the harbor, our first visitor appeared.
"There's one off the starboard!" Captain Fred shouted.
We rushed to the right side of the boat. My skin tingled as a black back rose out of the water.
"PSHHHHH!" The whale shot a spray of air and water from its blowhole. Then it dipped back under the surface.
"That's a minke whale," Fred explained through the ship's loudspeaker. "They are the smallest baleen whales."
Fred told us that there are two groups of whales. One group is called the toothed whales. They hunt for fish, squid, and other larger animals. Sperm whales, orcas, dolphins, and porpoises are all toothed whales.
The other group of whales is called baleen whales. Instead of teeth, baleen whales have long, thick combs called baleen in their mouths. Baleen whales use their combs to catch food. First, the whales suck in big mouthfuls of water. Then they force the water out through their baleen. The baleen snags shrimp, plankton, little fish, and all kinds of other treats for the whales to eat. I like to think of baleen whales as huge vacuum cleaners, sweeping the ocean for food.
The minke whale surfaced again, and I studied it. I had never seen a minke whale before. It stretched about 20 feet long from head to tail - one-third the length of our boat. Captain Fred told us that even though they are small, minke whales are the most common baleen whales in the world. Almost a million live in the world's oceans.
We said goodbye to the minke whale and continued out across the channel. Our excitement had just begun.
"Breach!" someone yelled.
"Where?" I asked.
My friend Maryam pointed. "Straight ahead!"
I scrunched my eyes and stared at the horizon. Then I saw it. Not one, but two humpback whales breached (leaped out of the water). They rose 10, 15, 20 feet high! Their huge bodies twirled and then - SMACK! - they fell back onto the ocean surface on their enormous backs.
Maryam and I gasped and looked at each other with wide eyes. Our boat approached to within a quarter mile of the humpbacks and then Fred cut our engines. "We have to show respect to these animals," he told us. "We'll let them decide whether they want to get close or not."
I guess the humpbacks felt safe with us. Soon, they swam only 100 feet from our boat. They would rise to the surface, take a breath through their large blowholes, and then sink underwater again. Sometimes their long white flukes - 10-foot-wide tails - would break the surface and silently slice through the air.
Nearby, a boat with divers also watched whales. The divers were from the University of California, and they were diving to find out what the whales were doing here. Whales are not new to southern California. Every year, gray whales pass close to shore on their way to Alaska or to Mexico. But these other whales - the minkes, the humpbacks, and others - were a special treat. Why had they come?
Scientists who study the whales don't believe that the whales had come just so we could see them. The whales had come because whale food had come, too. Humpbacks and other baleen whales feed primarily on shrimplike animals called krill. At first it seems impossible that a tiny krill could satisfy a huge, hungry whale. Whales don't just catch one krill at a time, however. With their baleen, they catch millions of krill - enough to allow whales to grow into giants.
It was noon by now, so we decided to say goodbye to the humpbacks and continue on our way. Soon, a pod of 150 common dolphins surrounded our boat. They raced in front of The Condor's bow, surfing on our wake. Pelicans, shearwaters, fallaropes, and other seabirds skimmed the ocean surface. Sea lions and seals floated nearby. It felt like nature was having a holiday.
But for us humans, the best was yet to come.
Captain Fred headed west. Soon we were alone on the open sea.
Lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat, my friends napped or talked about what we'd seen. Then, after an hour, we heard another cry.
"There it is!"
Everyone sprang to his feet and stared at the horizon. A spout of water shot up, and then we saw it - a great blue-gray back, lifting out of the water. This wasn't just any animal. It wasn't just any whale. It was the blue whale - the largest creature that has ever lived on earth - bigger than the biggest dinosaur that ever was.
All my life, I had wanted to see a blue whale, but I never thought I would. By the 1960s, whalers had hunted the great animals nearly to extinction. Even since whaling has stopped, blue whale populations have been slow to recover. I thought that maybe if I visited Antarctica - where lots of krill live - I might see a few blue whales, but now I didn't have to go that far. They were swimming in my own backyard!
And not just one blue whale, either. The giants surrounded us. Three, four, five - six of them!
Scientists know very little about blue whales and other large whales. The animals are difficult to study because they live out in the ocean and are too big to keep in a laboratory. However, since 1986, one group of scientists has been studying the blue whales and humpback whales off of the California coast. They have learned to identify each whale by scars and markings on the body and fins of the animals. By getting to know individual whales, the scientists are learning how many whales there are, where t hey go, and what they do.
The scientists have discovered some surprising things about the whales off California. For one thing, they found that there are more whales than anyone thought. About 700 humpback whales regularly visit the California coast and perhaps as many as 1,000 blue whales. Not all of these whales stay near California all year. Many of the humpbacks go to Mexico or Hawaii to breed. The blue whales also travel to Mexico and maybe even farther south.
But the best news about the whales is that their numbers may be increasing. One whale researcher, John Calambokidis, told me that "There is very little good information on past whale numbers, but my gut-level feeling is that whales are recovering." Still, no one knows for sure, and that's one reason it is important to keep studying these wonderful animals.
PSSSHHHHH! PSSSHHHHH! PSSSHHHHH!
We kept watching the blue whales shoot their watery breaths into the air. The blowholes of the blues were enormous - over a foot wide. After an animal breathed, its blowhole submerged. But then, the rest of the animal's back rolled to the surface. It didn't just pop up and down like the back of the minke whale. It kept coming and coming until, many yards from the blowhole, the whale's kingly tail appeared. Each animal's body stretched for at least 70 feet - maybe longer. It made our boat feel tiny.
We watched the whales as long as they let us. Maybe it was an hour. Maybe two. Watching them, we were unaware of anything else. We were enchanted. Finally, though, the whales swam off to look for more food. Or perhaps they grew tired of our company. I don't know. What I did know was that a dream of mine - to see a blue whale - had come true. As The Condor headed back to Santa Barbara, I smiled and hoped that another dream would also come true. The dream that blue whales - and all other whales - would alw ays be safe on this earth.