September 1, 2010

The 8am Whale

This isn't Ocho, she arrives before coffee and I'm too slow with the camera. It's a minke whale in the St Lawrence that I saw in July. Ocho is about the same size.
The first time I heard the heavy puff I was barely awake. I was standing on deck taking in the rising sun, the calm water and the leaping mobulas. The puff, I thought, must be a sea lion breathing, or waves hitting the rocks. Then the puff came again.

The sound of a whale breathing is hard to mistake. To breathe a whale expels water and air from their blowhole(s) then inhales air into its lungs. On the surface they breathe every 2 minutes or so. A dive can take them underwater for anywhere up to an hour, depending on the species. My puff came at regular intervals: one every 1-2 minutes for three puffs, then a five minute break. Then it repeated itself.

It seems obvious, now, that I should have been looking for a whale. But when you’re anchored in a quiet cove you don’t expect one of the world’s largest mammals to pop in for a visit. But this is what Ocho did, every morning at about 8am she would swim past the anchored boats at Isla San Carlos. Sometimes Ocho would surface only three or four times and then disappear, while other times she’d do a few laps and keep us guessing as to where she’d surface next.

I started drinking my coffee out on deck, trying to get a good view of the whale. Unlike a grey whale or an orca, Ocho only surfaced briefly to breathe. Her dorsal is small and well back along her body. She isn’t very big. My guess initial guess, based on her size, was she’s a minke. But minkes often travel in pods and Ocho seemed to be on her own.
A full grown finback is a stunningly huge creature. They tend to keep to the same habits, which makes me think Ocho might be a young finback.

On our last morning out at Sweet Pea I decided to try for a better look. Before the first telltale puff I headed out in the kayak. Ocho showed up right on schedule, a few hundred meters away from me. This time when she came up and I saw where her small dorsal was placed on her long back, I decided she must be a juvenile finback (there’s a resident pod in the Sea of Cortez). I watched her surface and dive a few more times as she moved away from me, then continued my paddle, satisfied I knew what I was seeing.

An hour or so later I was swimming with the girls off our boat when the puff came again. It was louder this time and echoed off our hull. When we looked for Ocho we saw her surface nearby. The girls squealed in amazement and delight. But I just stared hard at her fin. I was undecided about her species again. “I wish I knew what she is,” I told Maia.
“I know,” Maia told me, “She’s magic.”

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