On a remote section of beach along the Big Sur coast, Ventana Wilderness Society (VWS) Senior Wildlife Biologist Joe Burnett and I come to the first evidence that California condors have been in the area: a sea otter carcass picked clean. Lying in the sand below us is a tangle of vertebrae and fur along with a white softball-sized skull that resembles a kelp buoy.
Though Burnett, a longtime friend of mine, notes that this is the first time he has observed a sea otter body that has been eaten by condors, this is not the reason we have hiked more than an hour on this sprawling beach. Rather, we have walked through two sea caves, passed by a group of cliff swallows swarming around a mud nest like a bunch of hornets, and wandered past a handful of seasonal waterfalls hanging from coastal cliffs like beaded curtains to try and catch a glimpse of a California condor feeding on a gray whale carcass.
Until a month ago, when the VWS observed the phenomena, the last time any person witnessed such an occurrence was back in 1806. Then, near the Columbia River’s mouth, Captain William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition noted a “vulture” with a 10-foot wingspan—i.e. a California condor—“feeding on the remains of a whale and other fish which have been thrown up by the waves on the sea coast.”
Burnett and I are on this hike to witness a piece of what might be wildlife-biology history.
~ ~ ~
Pointing at the remains of the sea otter, Burnett sees the picked-over corpse as evidence of the success of VWS’ efforts to reintroduce the condor to its native habitat. “It’s a big step for them,” he says. “It seems they are getting closer to self-sustaining.”
He motions towards a bluff that blocks our beach passing and tells me that after climbing up and over the obstacle we will be on the beach with the whale carcass and, possibly, the condors.
After sliding down the far side of the sandy slope, which is covered by ice plant and fragrant sage, we arrive on a long beach with a rocky arm-like point on the far side. Burnett pulls out a high-powered spotting scope and observes a juvenile condor flying away and a mature condor perched in an unexpected place: on the makeshift blind that Burnett and I were going to hide behind to observe the birds feeding on the whale.
Following a few minutes of peering at the older condor through the scope, the huge animal takes off, using thermals to corkscrew up into the sky. “I think we arrived after they had breakfast,” Burnett observes.
Though we will not be able to watch the condor feasting on the whale meat buffet, both Burnett and I are excited that we are able to get a view of the bird. Last week, Burnett and a film crew from Animal Planet spent two days in the blind and didn’t see a single condor.
As the condor flies in and out of a wispy patch of fog located above the lumpy rock point, Burnett notices the giant bird is swinging out over the ocean. “It’s pretty unusual,” he says. “He’s going way out over that point. It’s pretty bold. I’ve never seen that.”
Eventually, we start walking towards the whale carcass, while the condor continues its ascent far overhead. Looking up into the ocean of blue sky, I see the bird’s white underside and claw-like wing edges.
We get to the whale carcass, and its wrinkled, red, waxy skin looks like a sagging tarp thrown over some hulking, hidden frame. It lies on the beach almost 40 feet long with its tail curled up, so that it resembles the letter “j.” Some of its skin is torn back to reveal some flesh that almost looks like wood.
The smell of something that big decomposing is horrendous. Burnett aptly says the stench is probably similar to what one would get from leaving a dead fish in a hot car for a couple of weeks.
~ ~ ~
He believes that the whale died of natural causes and probably washed onto shore during the last major winter storm in the middle of April. A few days later, the Big Sur community and California State Parks alerted VWS that condors were feeding on the body.
Since VWS started observing the area, the nonprofit’s biologists have witnessed condors on the carcass three or four times a week. One time, field biologist Ryan Choi recorded five condors by the beached whale.
As a plane high above zippers across the sky, Burnett estimates that the condors will probably be able to use the whale as a food source for three to four months. He explains that the condors eat by creating a hole or using a pre-existing one like an eye socket. “They take the path of least resistance,” he says.
Then, they dip their sharp beaks and serrated tongues into the dead animal searching for meat. “They go in like a vacuum cleaner,” Burnett says.
Burnett, who has worked for VWS for 13 years, goes on to say that the condors feeding on marine animals like whales is a truly great thing for the species. Terrestrial creatures like deer often have levels of lead in their systems. Condors, like other animals including humans, can only take so much exposure to lead. Meanwhile, whale meat appears to have low levels of contaminants.
Burnett believes that this event, along with the birds beginning to feed on sea lion carcasses in 1999, is one of the most impressive things that he has witnessed while working for VWS recovery program, which currently has 25 birds released in the wild. The next big milestone Burnett is hoping to see is for some of the birds in Big Sur to hatch a chick.
We watch as a handful of seagulls take their turn and feed on the beached whale. Overhead, a peregrine falcon soars above the carcass, and a Layson albatross makes a landing on the beach.
“There is a whole ecosystem around this whale now,” Burnett says. “I couldn’t have dreamed up this set-up.”
For more information about Ventana Wilderness Society, the only nonprofit organization releasing condors, visit ventanaws.org.