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Aug 23

Humpback whales off Diablo Canyon

A large group of humpback whales, seals, pelicans and seagulls were feeding in the ocean near Diablo Canyon Nuclear Powerplant on the afternoon of Sept. 8, 2000 © David Middlecamp

Photographer Bill Bouton recently recorded a remarkable series of humpback whale images at Avila Beach. When he posted them to his flickr site the the images were picked up worldwide in various media and one was published on the front page of The Tribune. A tip of the lens cap from one photographer to another.
Whales inspire wonder when they breech the surface.
Just look at the faces in the picture from Avila Beach.
Not far from where Bouton recorded his images is the loaf shaped Whalers Island, now a part of the Port San Luis breakwater. During the 1800s a lookout was stationed at the lighthouse and after a successful harpooning, the whale carcass would be towed to the island to be stripped of blubber. Boiled down to oil it was the precursor to petroleum oil. Lubrication and lamps relied on the product in the early industrial age.

Whalers Island is the loaf shaped portion in the breakwater at Port San Luis. ©David Sneed/The Tribune

According to the Avila Beach website bringing in ten whales would pay for a season.
Ironically the port would later become a major transfer point for petroleum oil.
Whales were almost hunted to extinction but the cetaceans have been on a comeback since the International Whaling Convention instituted an indefinite ban of commercial whaling in 1986. There are limited exceptions for scientific and tribal hunting. Japan and Norway ignore the ban.
On September 8, 2000 I had a similar experience to Bill’s offshore from Diablo Canyon.
We had received a call from the public relations department that there were up to four whales breeching at a time in the morning fog offshore from the nuclear powerplant.
John Lindsay took the helm as we went out in a small aluminum boat that afternoon and the sun had broken through. I was skeptical, every time I had been out on the ocean all I had got was seasick. Looking through a long telephoto lens from a rolling platform is not a good way to settle lunch.
This time things were very different and it was one of the most memorable assignments of my career.
Lindsay piloted the 26-foot aluminum Large Munson a safe and legally respectful distance away from the activity.
The sky was a riot of brown pelicans and seagulls in a concentrated area about half the size of a football field.
Pelicans dive-bombed from the sky filling their pouches with fish. Sleek harbor seals darted through the middle of the chaos with an occasional glance toward the boat.
Though I did not witness four whales breech at once it was clear that there were several in the water circling the bait ball of fish while others pushed up through the center. Photos from earlier in the day showed even more activity.
With the cloud of pelicans falling from the sky it was amazing that I did not see any collisions.
The average size of a humpback whale is 52 feet long and 30-50 tons. The four-chambered heart weighs about as much as three average adult humans.
They gulp water then filter krill, plankton and small fish from the water.
To concentrate prey the hunting whales form a circle and blow a wall of bubbles concentrating the trapped bait ball in a 10-100 foot circle near the surface.
As I concentrated on framing with my long lens I heard a gasp at my side that was not in sync with what I was seeing. I lowered my camera to see one whale coming straight at us on the surface.
I had just enough time to try to formulate the thought “Please don’t hit us” and have a vision of whalers tossed into the sea with the flick of a tail.
Was it curiosity on the part of the whale or just an amazing random moment?
It ducked below us with a slow dive, vertebrae by vertebrae rolling under our boat. It looked close enough to touch.
Awsome, a creature with that much size and power able to make such a delicate maneuver.
The photo ended up on The Tribune’s front page and later being reprinted in a poster and sold as a fundraiser for the San Luis Obispo Literacy Council.

The power plant and whales are connected in another way as Pacific Gas and Electric studies and maps faults near the plant. Mapping of underwater structures requires a high energy pulse that critics argue will hurt marine mammals. The study is in the approval process and is designed to provide a more complete understanding of the earthquake risks using technology that was unavailable when the plant was constructed.

The U.S. Navy is also currently involved in a legal battle to test Low Frequency Active sonar that environmental groups say is lethal to cetaceans. The penetrating sound-waves in the Navy project can cause tissue rupture, hemorrhage and stroke according to a letter written by the Biodiversity Legal Foundation.

The next post will outline the life of a whaler circa 1880.

Related posts:

  1. 1968 Diablo Canyon archeology
  2. 1973 Undersea fault near Diablo Canyon
  3. Diablo Canyon reactor vessel installed
  4. Drawings of new atomic plant at Diablo Canyon
  5. Japanese nuclear experts tour Diablo Canyon power plant