Chasing the Killers
Killer whale researchers document the recent violence of Monterey Bay.
Thursday, June 3, 2004
It’s 10 minutes before 11 o’ clock on a Friday morning in
mid-May and a 22-foot inflatable boat, with three women and a
black lab named Andy on board, bobs along the ocean surface,
thousands of feet of deep sea plunging below. They are 11
miles directly north of Monterey, along the edge of a titanic
The inside of the boat is only about five feet wide and the deck is crammed with gear: hard plastic briefcases filled with video and still-photographic gear, a big blue duffel bag, various backpacks stuffed with dry clothing, Gatorade and ham sandwiches. Tucked lengthwise along the gunwale is a long plastic case with a dart rifle inside. Even more equipment has been stuffed into cubbyholes under the console and seats.
Nancy Black, a marine biologist who has studied killer whales here in the bay and around the world since 1987, stands at the helm. A dedicated volunteer and licensed boat pilot named Peggy Stap stands behind Black, ready to record grid coordinates and other data in a log. In the bow, research assistant Sarah Graham readies a small electronic device called a hydrophone. All three of them are bundled up in thick and puffy bright orange waterproof survival coveralls known as “mustang suits.” The suits have straps around the legs to keep out water, for a while anyway. It would be very easy to fall out of this little boat.
A hydrophone is an underwater microphone that can pick up the sound of whales communicating from a mile or so off. The microphone itself is roughly the size of a spool of thread and it’s attached to about 15 feet of black cord plugged into headphone speakers and a cassette recorder so the vocalizations can be compared against the log.
The background noise on the hydrophone sounds like water lapping in a bathtub. When fishing boats are trawling the ocean floor it sounds like a hairdryer. When killer whales are in the area and they are killing or eating, it sounds like a crazy barnyard.
“They sound like cats. When they get excited they sound like donkeys,” Graham says. “On Wednesday I heard a vocalization before a breach that sounded like an elephant. It was really deep.”
Kissing the hydrophone for good luck, Graham tosses it into the ocean. She bends her head down, puts her hands over her earphones and listens carefully.
Killer whales have been roaming the bay in force this spring and slaughtering gray whale calves in numbers “totally unheard of,” Black says. Black has been out in the water witnessing the carnage several times a week for the past month or so. Unlike the more gregarious and chatty killer whales in places like Puget Sound, the type in this area are more elusive and notoriously silent.
“They don’t say much unless they’re eating,” Black says.
This year there are so many killer whales in Monterey Bay, the crew knows they will likely get a sighting report soon after leaving the harbor at 7am, and almost certainly by noon.
Graham has sunk the hydrophone twice already this morning, getting nothing at first, then a faint signal. The third try is the charm.
“Ooooohhh, got ‘em!” she says excitedly. Then, mimicking the killer whale vocalizations she lets out a yelp and points. “Eeeeeeeyaaahhhhh. There’s dolphins with them. Go that way.”
The hydrophone is not directional but Graham can tell roughly the distance to the animals. Black points the boat south and accelerates.
Another clue appears; a strong oceanic but sort of oily, fishy scent soon wafts through the air.
“I smell gray whale,” Stap says.
Black, who has a graduate degree in marine science from Moss Landing Marine Lab, also runs a small company called Monterey Bay Whale Watch. When she’s out in the inflatable, her boat captains, as well as local fishermen, act as a spotting network, calling in new sightings over the marine radio or over a cell phone. She’s a respected denizen of the harbor; even the guy at the fuel ramp wears one of her company ballcaps.
But it would not be right to give too much credit to the hydrophone or the cell phone. Black has been on the water so long that she has become attuned to its nature. Her study of various Monterey Bay whales and their patterns has given her a certain intuition about where they will be. She has a well-honed sense of the most secretive among them. To an untrained observer it might look like part luck, part skill and part reckoning. But Black has a knowledge so deep and a manner so matter-of-fact and modest, she makes it look easy.
Still, she can’t pull whales out of a hat, and there are years of scientific study behind her seeming ESP. Through the Monterey Bay Cetacean Project, she and a team of researchers and naturalists relentlessly document whale sightings and activity here. They have local whales under intense surveillance. More than 100 have been photographed for positive identification and entered into life history files that resemble dossiers on criminal suspects.
Using Graham’s guesstimate of where the killer whales might be, Black calls one of her team, Danny Frank, the captain of Sea Wolf II. Sure enough, he calls back in minutes.
“OK we got ‘em,” says Black. Grinning and pointing to the company logo on her hat, she says, “Whale watching boat. Monterey Bay Whale Watching boat.”
Approaching, then steering to the periphery of the animals, she’s spotting individuals and calling them out by name. A male with a unique marking on his towering dorsal fin slices up through the water.
“Starfin is there,” she says.
Black first observed Starfin in 1992 when he was about five. She’s watched him grow through the years, and today, at 17 years old, he’s a strapping 30-footer. He got his name from a strange half-star-shaped notch in his dorsal fin. He’s an important figure and she will be on his trail all day long.
Starfin and his fellow killer whales in this bay, a nomadic-type known as “transients,” are a set apart from the “offshore” type that travel in large groups in the middle of the ocean, and different from the closely-knit “residents” who stay in pods.
Although there are three different types of killer whales, the Orcinus Orca can be found in every ocean. They are highly intelligent, with brains four to five times the size of a human’s. They are six feet long at birth and males grow to 30 feet, females 25 feet. They are admired for their grace and sharp coloring—Black’s assistant Stap compares them to men in tuxedos. And they are feared by marine mammals like sea lions for their ferocity.
Unlike residents, who prefer salmon, the transients here eat warm-blooded prey, and today, Starfin and the others have just attacked a gray whale calf. Traveling in “core groups” of three or four individuals, they will band together for a hunt and kill, helping each other then sharing the food. Young killer whales watch and learn.
Once the four- or five-month-old baby gray whale is dead—after being rammed hard, ripped at, then held underwater and drowned—the killer whales peel off its blubber in patches, tear the fatty flesh into smaller pieces and gulp it down.
While we watch, a glistening whitish chunk of blubber about the size of a mattress bobs on the surface, as killer whales take turns dragging it around in their teeth.
With Black’s inflatable, the tourist-laden Sea Wolf II and a third boat with three men aboard filming the action for a documentary all on the scene, a mixed group of about 14 killer whales—females, juveniles, calves and big males—swirl around their food, variously surfacing and diving. The large patch of blubber that had just come into view quickly vanishes.
With the killer whales now discovered and within feet of the inflatable, Graham throws the hydrophone back into the water for some close-ups.
She gets an earful. The orcas are silent on the hunt but boisterous at the kill.
“Ohh. Ohhh. Ohhh. Oh my god! Oh my god!” she cries out. “Heeeee haaaa heeee haaa.”
Nineteenth-century whaling captain and author Charles Melville Scammon compiled a definitive volume of sea life as it was known then, a book called The Marine Mammals of the Northwest Coast of North America and the American Whale Fishery.
Killer whales got their name from whalers for their vicious attacks on larger whales. This is Scammon’s description of one such killing off the coast of Baja California in 1858:
The attack of these wolves of the ocean upon their gigantic prey may be likened, in some respects, to a pack of hounds holding a stricken deer at bay. They cluster about the animal’s head, some of their number breaching over it, while others seize it by the lips and haul the bleeding monster under water; and when captured, should the mouth be open, they eat out the tongue.
This has been the scene repeated over and over again just about every day this spring on Monterey Bay. The unprecedented volume of what scientists like Black refer to as “predation” has revealed what some call a “Serengeti of the sea,” where massive mammals clash in to-the-death-battles the way lions chase down migrating wildebeest, zebras and gazelles on the African savanna.
Like predation elsewhere, death can be fleeting. Sometimes the predators gorge; sometimes the prey escapes. Black’s log for this year proves what’s being seen in 2004 as a bloody phenomenon.
The massacre began on April 13. Gray whales had been sighted in the bay from the beginning of the month. Then on the 13th, killer whales, 18 of them, killed a gray whale calf. Along with the usual appearances of humpbacks and various kinds of dolphins, more killers began to show up: seven on April 15, five the next day, then four of them through the day on the 17th, eventually killing a gray whale; 13 killing another the next day; 21 on the 19th, 22 on the 20th; 17 attacking a gray whale on the 22nd; 16 killing on the 23rd; eight on the hunt on the 25th; and on and on. And that’s just April. It continued into May.
Word quickly spread through the harbor and into the news media, from the Los Angeles Times to the Today Show.
“We’ve been seeing killer whales everyday. This has never happened before. It’s unprecedented,” Black says. “They’re just hanging out. This is a prime year for gray whale calves.”
Every spring since 1994 on an outcropping at Point Piedras Blancas, just north of San Simeon, a team of scientists from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sets up a wooden table and chairs and props up a set of 25-power marine binoculars on a pedestal mount. Led by Wayne Perryman, a NOAA marine biologist, the researchers count migrating gray whale mothers and calves pass by, usually within 200 yards of land, sometimes right in the surf line.
This spring has seen a steady freight train of California gray whales.
“We’ve had a very good year,” Perryman says in late May, after a stint at the observation post. “The count right now is about 450 and that’s very high. It’s the second highest in all 11 years we’ve been doing this. This is a big deal.”
Those are just the ones they can see. The NOAA researchers used borrowed military night scopes for a few years to observe the whales at night, to see if they keep moving north or hunker down in the dark.
They keep moving, which presents a bit of a problem. The team only counts during daylight hours because of NOAA budget cuts this year, only five days a week. So, the actual count could be higher, even double.
Some years are thin. In 2000, only 96 pairs were counted during the whole migration. Some whales observed that year were horribly emaciated: one filmed in the bay was so skinny it looked skeletal.
This year, with the count already at 450, some days are a bonanza. A whopping 32 pairs of cows and calves were counted on a single day, April 27, at the traditional height of the season.
It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, as the local California grays—officially known as the Eastern North Pacific Stock of gray whales—are a contemporary wildlife success story.
Gray whales were hunted down to extremely low numbers in the last century through whaling. According to a news report in the Jan. 1, 1955 edition of the Monterey Peninsula Herald, the world population got down to an estimated 100 whales in the 1930s—even though they were not whalers’ first choice.
In the 1800s, whaling companies—including those located in Monterey and Moss Landing—turned to the grays only when market demand depleted stocks of more oil-rich whale species. Still, they were slaughtered to near extinction.
Local archives describe whalers sitting six to a boat at Pt. Pinos off Pacific Grove, waiting for the migration to pass. Soviet whalers were killing 180 gray whales a year up until 1980.
Eventually protected by international hunting bans in 1946, California gray whale stocks rebounded, enough that they were removed from the endangered species list in 1994. Today their numbers are thought to be about 17,000 to 20,000.
Unlike deepwater species like sperm whales, grays are coastal. They migrate back and forth 12,400 miles between the Bering Sea and Baja California, hugging the shore.
Up north they feed in summer on bottom-dwelling crustaceans known as amphipods by plowing through the ocean-floor mud. In winter, they breed and calve in the lagoons of Baja California. The migration begins in February and passes Perryman’s crew from March until June.
A gray whale newborn measures 15 feet and weighs 10 tons. An adult can reach nearly 50 feet in length. Although known to be inquisitive and gentle, they earned the nickname “devil fish” from whalemen because a mother would rather die than leave her young to be killed.
Combining satellite photography of arctic ice formations and calf production numbers Perryman’s team creates graphs to predict the number of gray whales that will pass Piedras Blancas in a given year. Perryman explains that there is a direct relationship between ice distribution and calf production.
When seasonal ice is slow to recede in the spring and early summer, he says, calf production the following winter is low. Abundant ice in the Bering Sea means the gray whales may not be able to feed as well as when the ice is early to melt.
Outside the feeding grounds during migration and breeding, eating is the rare opportunistic exception.
“We’re convinced that reproductive success is connected to conditions in the Arctic,” he says. “I feel that pregnant females that don’t put on enough fat early in the feeding season are less likely to carry their pregnancies to term.”
So is this abundance of whales a clue to rising ocean temperatures and global warming?
“Gray whales are a pretty good indicator of what’s happening,” Perryman says. Via email he adds, “There is a solid correlation between seasonal ice and the number of calves we see. What we don’t know is the causal factor. It is perfectly reasonable to suspect that ice is just an index of some other environmental factor that is the true cause of the fluctuations in calf production that we observe.
“I don’t want anyone to think that I am proposing that global warming is good for gray whales. I think that conditions of reduced ice, at the levels that we currently see, are having a positive impact on their ability to feed. Any long-term shift in temperature could have catastrophic consequences to the entire ecosystem, including gray whales.”
Surveys of passing gray whales were done by a Santa Cruz graduate student in 1980 and 1981 at Piedras Blancas, and then resumed from 1994 to the present, but it’s early to derive much from the annual parade with only 11 years of data. Scientists are reluctant to tie evidence from one species to large-scale environmental changes known as “regime shifts.”
“There are pieces to the puzzle we don’t quite get,” Perryman says.
Other pieces of the puzzle, pieces of gray whale calf blubber, have been floating around the bay all spring.
Two nights before the Friday outing in the inflatable, Nancy Black, Peggy Stap, Sarah Graham and Andy the Lab came upon the scene of a gray whale predation by killer whales, and stayed with the calf carcass late into the night. They were in the Pt. Sur Clipper, a 55-foot-long former party fishing boat built in 1967 in Washington State. It has a modest cabin, grumbly, twin diesel engines, an open rear deck with a table for filleting fish and a wide loft behind the helm where Andy can bed down among the assorted packs, tools, duct tape and bags of donuts, cake and corn chips that he ignores with rare discipline.
That night, May 12, they stayed out until past dark in rough seas with the dead calf, recording killer whale music that was so loud they could hear it from in the boat. They say it was like an orchestra, and Graham fell asleep that night hearing ‘eeee—-ohhhhh’ in her head.
The sounds whales make, and the sounds they are believed to hear, play a crucial role in their survival.
Since gray whales like to hug the coast, they could make relatively easy pickings for the roaming killers, if they aren’t careful. All up the coast they stay within a few hundred yards of shore and it’s not uncommon to see them laying low in the rocky coves and kelp beds of a place like Pt. Lobos, in what’s thought to be an evasive tactic from prowling and corralling killer whales. Black has seen mothers and calves hold their breath and make a mad dash for shore. When they get into shallow water—under 60 feet—they’re safe because killer whales generally avoid shallow water.
Monterey Bay is favored hunting ground for killer whales because it’s one of only a few places where gray whales are exceedingly vulnerable.
The Monterey Canyon, spreading out like a funnel below the ocean from Moss Landing, drops from a coastline depth of 330 feet all the way down to nearly 12,000 feet at the known lowest point.
Black theorizes that killer whales silently patrol the edges of the canyon, listening for the gray whales to send out navigational signals—which sound like knocks on wood—as they cross the canyon. She uses the same contours from above to find the killer whales, moving along the roughly diagonal edge of the canyon in her boat exactly like they do.
Indeed the twin steamstacks at Moss Landing can serve as a visual reference point from the water. In fog they rise up half obscured and brown like the bell towers of a medieval cathedral.
On the morning after spending the night with the carcass, Black and crew return to the same spot, hoping to find the killers still with the carcass.
It’s early when they get underway and Stap has stopped to pick up breakfast en route to the dock. The three chow down eggs, sausage, biscuits, coffee and orange juice, rubbing their eyes from the long night previous.
Today it’s just the crew on the boat, no whale-watchers. Two years ago, a documentary was made about the killer whales of the Monterey Bay and it featured Black and her research partner Richard Ternullo. It was broadcast both here and in England, a nation that can’t seem to get enough of wildlife documentaries. Because of the film, she’s actually had British tourists come to Monterey in the spring to see the killer whales. And this year, tourists are getting a close-up view of nature’s chilling truths. A baby whale being battered to death by killer whales means lots of thudding noises and pools of blood in the water.
“Most people are really excited,” Black says from the wheel of the Pt. Sur Clipper. “I haven’t heard of too many people being freaked out. Mostly they’re just shocked and surprised they can see something like that. We tell them it’s all just part of nature.”
Besides running the whale-watching tours, Black does regular research through the Monterey Bay Cetacean Project. As part of it, she and Ternullo have developed a catalogue of about 140 transient killer whales. They identify each by alphanumeric designations such as CA-39, a dominant female and proficient hunter. Some get nicknames, like Starfin, or a calf that likes to jump up and peep or “spyhop”—a lot, called Hopper.
This year they’ve run through nearly the whole catalogue. Some 60 individual killer whales have been observed out of a total 100 or so known living whales. Usually it takes years to run through so many and Black says it is very, very rare to see such a high volume in one season.
“The word is out,” Black says. “They know when to go and what time of year.”
There’s more to Black’s research, though, than taking pictures.
The killer whale is prey to no predator in the sea. It’s an apex species—at the very top of the food chain. While the resident whales in places like Puget Sound eat salmon, the transient types here prefer fellow mammals. Transients will attack everything in the water from the biggest animal on Earth, the blue whale, to gray whales, sea lions, seals, sea otters, and even sea birds.
Killer whales bothering with such bite-size fur-encased snacks like sea otters have prompted alarm among some scientists, but of concern to Black is the potential for toxic pollution accumulating in killer whales. When the opportunity presents itself, she uses a dart rifle—the same type used to shoot tranquilizers into bears—to collect blubber samples from specific animals. Under a government-issue research permit she does it both to collect genetic information that will shed light on social structures—both local and global—and to have the tissue sample examined for traces of man-made pollutants, chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT (a pesticide) and PCBs (chemicals used in paints and hydraulic fluids). The toxins are known to contaminate fish and have been blamed for poor reproduction in eagles and falcons. They also collect in apex species like killer whales, possibly doing genetic harm, causing a compromised immune system, reduced sperm counts in males and reproductive problems in females.
Females are sexually mature at 20, live to about 70 and stop calving at 40. The gestation cycle is 16 months. Compared to killer whales elsewhere, it’s believed that the killer whales exposed to seaborne pollutants have both a slower birth rate and risk passing on accumulated chemicals to the firstborn calf.
“It’s hard to demonstrate a cause and effect but we have indications that calving intervals are higher here, that they’re missing calves,” says Black.
In California, blame for seaborne pollutants points to a Montrose Chemical Company plant in Torrance, near Los Angeles, that was found to have dumped millions of pounds of DDT through sewage pipes and into the ocean dating back to the 1940s. According to NOAA, as recently as 1993, more than 100 metric tons of DDT, along with significant amounts of PCBs from other industrial sources, were discovered in the sediment off the coast near Los Angeles.
Residual pesticides like DDT have also been detected in the dredgings of Moss Landing harbor, passed into the sea from Salinas Valley agricultural run-off.
“There’s a huge amount still seeping through. It’s going up the food chain and it will take a long time to filter out of the killer whales,” Black says. “We don’t know. This could be a threatened group of killer whales. It takes a long time to know.” And one major problem with trying to know is gathering reliable information; attaching a reliable tracking device without capturing an animal remains a scientific challenge.
At 9:35am, Black gets the boat to where she had it last night.
There is nothing.
“This is where they killed the gray whale yesterday but they’re not here,” she says. “It’s frustrating because we know they’re here. They’re like fugitives or something.”
An hour and a half later she tracks down four killer whales to the south. At 11am they surface and then dive. Usually a dive lasts five minutes. Seven minutes later they’re still not apparent.
More than a half hour passes with everyone scanning the water, on what’s a clear, sunny day. Stap has been keeping track on her watch.
“It’s been 42 minutes since they went down,” she says.
Black takes a course headed northeast in hopes of intercepting them, following the edge of the canyon. Graham comes inside from her lookout spot on the roof and breaks open a piece of cheesecake.
“My eyes hurt so bad, I’ve been looking so hard,” she says.
The wind usually picks up later in the day and when it gets to be 1:45, with no killer whales in sight for almost three hours, Stap wheels the boat around off Spanish Bay and hooks a right around the buoy off Pt. Pinos.
“They can swim at 20 knots for a while. They will leave you in the dust,” says Black.
Back in the harbor, Ternullo meets the boat. He walks up on the dock in jeans, a baseball hat and a thick, buttoned shirt. He’s been studying the sea and its creatures for 25 years and has become an expert on seabirds as well as whales.
“It’s the greatest predation event on Earth,” he says walking back from the docks atop the municipal wharf. “I mean, you have hundreds of tons of whale crashing together out there.”
Still, after watching it so many times, the sight of a calf getting the life beat out of it has become a sad one for Ternullo.
“I’m not that thrilled to see it anymore,” he says.
The next day, May 14, the three women and Andy the dog head out in the inflatable at 7am, from the boat ramp next to the Monterey harbormaster’s office.
It’s smooth but foggy. The bay is sprinkled with recreational fishing boats of all shapes and sizes spread out in search of salmon. Speeding north from the harbor, a deep-V-hulled boat, its bow rising high and in the stern a huddle of coffee-sipping fishermen, overtakes the inflatable. Black pushes diagonally across the wake so the little boat doesn’t get rocked and rolled.
Four hours later, a group of feeding killer whales are finally picked up over the hydrophone. Black, Stap and Graham are among them in minutes. The orcas have just killed a gray whale calf and have been dragging around a piece of its blubber. Eventually the whale-watching boats leave the area, leaving the inflatable alone with the killer whales. It’s clear and sunny and warm enough to strip down from the mustang suits.
Although killer whales were once believed to be dangerous to humans and everything else down the food chain, these are not. At any point any of them could have effortlessly nudged the boat and flipped it over. But they don’t. They glide below and around the inflatable close enough to tap with a finger, close enough that Andy the dog leans out of the boat for a sniff.
Now alone with the killer whales, Nancy decides to pull out her gun.
She’s spotted one particular whale she wants a sample from. While Stap steers, Black assembles the rifle and dart. When the dart hits a killer whale it will penetrate about three-quarters of an inch and extract a piece of blubber slightly bigger than a pencil eraser, then fall out and float. Graham digs out a largish aquarium net and stands ready to retrieve.
Black knows which whale she wants, ignoring some larger males who have been orbiting the area. She wants CA-50, a female that has hunted the bay for a long time and has an active reproductive life.
All of a sudden three killer whales surface briefly, one beside the other. Black immediately takes aim at the closest and squeezes the trigger. The dart slaps into the broadside of the killer whale with a thwack. It all happens in an instant, and when it slips back under the water, the darted killer whale rolls on its side. Stap makes two tight circles and Graham gets the dart.
“She’d be a good one to see the PCB levels,” Black says. “We think she’s Starfin’s mother. He’s always with her. With the genetic information we can tell for sure.”
Not long after they’ve packed away the blubber sample and set out looking to dart Starfin, a large patch of gray whale blubber floats into view. A sample of gray whale blubber would be quite a prize for scientific testing. But the killer whales are in the area and it’s their lunch Black wants. The race is on.
“Hurry! Hurry! Hurry!” she cries to Stap as she points the boat toward it and guns the motor. “I need the gaff,” she says to Graham.
Then everything slows down, the boat drifts and it gets real quiet.
The boat slides up to the patch of blubber silently. It’s only about as big as a pizza box, and strangely enough, a near perfect square. The outer skin is gray and has deep gouges and scrapes in it. It’s pretty well chewed up, but intact. Passing directly over it, Black waits at the stern with the gaff, ready to hook it.
But as the inflatable moves slowly off the blubber, silently but ominously, from well below, a massive upwelling of water appears, creating a huge, frothy white bubble ring rising in the dark water in shades of black and green and yellow.
Before Black can reach out and snag it, a killer whale rises from beneath and barely breaking the surface, snatches back the blubber patch and disappears. The crew watches, stunned.
“Wow. She just took it,” Black says. “Man, that was so close.”
For the next hour, the inflatable follows a faint oil slick left on the surface as the blubber gets dragged further out to sea by the killer whales. Others have been visible but the ones with the blubber are moving fast.
It’s getting into the afternoon when onshore winds push hard into the bay. Increasingly dangerous seas pummel the little boat and anyone in the bow gets a rough, wet ride. When it comes down on the backside of larger swells, the hull slams into the ocean surface. And as hard as she tries to be gentle, Stap can’t help it when the bow takes a wave the wrong way and splashes a few gallons of water into the boat.
Graham and Stap start lobbying Black for permission to turn the boat around but Black wants that blubber.
She wants to dart Starfin.
She turns her back to the wind and stands behind Stap, behind the console. Soon the swells are getting closer and closer together, lining up in neat, relentless sets. There’s no respite and the boat gets beaten harder and harder. Graham has put the cameras away to keep them from the waves of water.
Stap tries again, appealing to Black to turn her head around so she can see the conditions.
“Look at the wind! Look at the stacked waves! You’re not even looking!” she says.
When she does, and can see it’s become counterproductive to proceed farther into the ocean, Black relents and lets Stap turn the boat around.
In the past few weeks the gray whale migration has dropped dramatically from a surge to a trickle. They pass Piedras Blancas now in twos and threes and soon, none shall pass. But it was a bountiful season, with Black taking 15 blubber samples this year compared to her usual three or four. She’s got thousands of photographs to comb through and hours of footage to view.
This day, though, she could not quite get everything she wanted; some physical evidence of this animal she calls Starfin. He got away and vanished under cover of seas too rough for the boat.
Black’s work is part art, and part science. It has already taken almost 15 years to assemble the picture and answer some questions. Today, she and Stap and Graham got a bit closer until they couldn’t get quite close enough. Natural obstacles like stacking swells are just another variable, like fast-moving targets, that can’t be controlled.
Before taking the wheel for the trip back to Monterey, Black picks up the log and writes in the day’s final entry. “They’re continuing to drag the blubber to the west,” she writes.
After everyone gets settled in, Black points the little boat back east and south, picking up speed, gracefully skimming, slipping across the sides of the same swells that were crunching the boat just minutes before.