An Island with Two Eyes
WITH TWO EYES
Close encounters with curious cetaceans
Gray whales are among the most inquisitive animals in the world. No other species of whale seeks contact with humans as often as these living rocks. Here id presents a close encounter with one of the most fascinating inhabitants of the planet…
The ocean off the coast of California is smooth as glass. The sun is high in the sky and only a single boat bobs along the surface of the sparkling water. There is water as far as the eye can see—until all of a sudden the surface appears as if it is beginning to boil. Millions of tiny bubbles emerge out of nowhere. Just seconds later the boat is surrounded by six swimming rocks. The mussel-covered islands are only an arm’s length away from the crew. As if hypnotized, the crew members stare at the whitish-gray rocks—and the rocks stare right back at them…
THE LIVING ROCKS OF THE OCEANS
Exactly 330 feet. It’s dangerous for a boat to get any closer to a whale—at least according to international whale watching conventions. Off the coast of California, however, this unwritten rule is regularly broken. But that’s not always the fault of the humans who operate tours for the whale watchers; actually, the gray whales themselves are often to blame. In fact, no other mammal is as inquisitive about and interested in human beings as these 50-foot-long leviathans. While other whale species can only be observed from a distance or when they emerge by chance—perhaps attracted to the water’s surface by a large swarm of krill—the gray whales regularly and deliberately seek proximity to people. Again and again marine biologists
have observed gray whale mothers guiding their calves to the water’s surface and downright encouraging them to make contact with the little creatures in the mysterious plastic trays—i.e., us.
Interestingly, it’s not just tour boats full of whale watchers that receive a diligent inspection from gray whales, but kayakers and surfers as well— some have found themselves being escorted by the animals for several minutes. It’s an enthralling encounter but it doesn’t always go so smoothly, as is apparent in numerous Youtube videos. In fact this “spyhopping”—as marine biologists call the surfacing and monitoring behavior exhibited by whales and dolphins—can have fatal consequences for both the animals and humans. Reason: On one hand the whales are extremely interested in container ships, and when they are swimming along with these transport vessels sometimes they can be so badly injured by the ship’s propeller or the bow when they surface that they sink, lifeless, to the ocean floor. On the other hand, humans can also be killed by proximity to the 40-ton marine giants. Last March a Canadian tourist in Mexico died from injuries sustained when a gray whale crashed into the boat she was traveling in as the creature was surfacing.
Researchers still puzzle over the reasons for the extreme curiosity of the gray whales. What they do know, however: Although gray whales travel
farther than any other mammal—up to 15,000 miles every year migrating from Mexico to the Arctic and back again—unlike other whale species, gray whales journeying through the Pacific stay close to the coast, which for the most part is heavily populated by people. What’s more, the animals are the only whales that also search for food along the ocean floor—using a unique feeding technique: They’ll hunt and eat crustaceans and snails that live on the ocean floor by rolling onto one side and sucking in bottom sediment as they slowly swim along. They then push the water and muck out through their baleen plates while the food animals remain trapped in their mouth. During the course of this hunting process scores of barnacles, crayfish larvae, and snails also attach themselves to the whale’s body—so much so that an adult whale may be carrying around up to 450 pounds of these small stowaways on its body. While foraging along the ocean floor most gray whales turn onto their right side. Accordingly, the baleen plates on the right side are often shorter and more worn down than those on the left, and the right side of the head is more severely scratched up from rummaging around on the seabed— which is one more thing that makes gray whales look like living rocks that jut out from the water…