We're at Avalon Harbor, Catalina Island.
There's such a Mediterranean feel here that you could imagine yourself in Italy.
Sometimes there’s a moment so perfect and shining that you keep it close, forever. In the heat of such intense moments, a sense of awe erases rational thought and you are, while it's happening, merely a set of eyes and ears and a heart for taking in an experience that will be pondered and marveled at later, mined for meaning and savored like a beacon in your brain, for the rest of your life.
Three days ago we had such a moment. We had left Catalina Harbor, on the island’s south side, for Avalon, on its NE side. Our friend Jim Morris aboard his lovely 46-foot ketch Silver Fog had rejoined us and we went along together, skirting a wall of fog. There were many rafts of flippers sticking lazily out of the water—sea lions thermo-regulating as they rested. Another group of dorsal fins revealed what we thought was a pod of four very large dolphins. That pod swam up to the bow of Silver Fog and accompanied it like a pod of dolphins would do, but when Jim M. went forward to look, he noticed the length of these “dolphins” went halfway down his boat! “They were Minke whales,” he said later, “At least twenty feet long. I never knew they liked to play like that under a boat’s bow.”
A little foray into a crowded but cool tourist town was what we expected of Avalon, and we haven't been disappointed. The wind died, so we motored along for a few hours, then raised the genoa when a bit of breeze filled in from the SE. But rounding Seal Rocks toward Quarry Beach, the wind died again, and the diesel chugged as we went about 300 yards offshore, past an ugly mining operation on the yellow cliffs.
We’d heard there were blue whales in the channel between Catalina and the mainland. I’d read about them in books, seen photos, and always wished I could see one. But they’re very rare, and the ocean’s big, so figure the odds. Blue whales are the largest animal that has ever lived on Earth. Twice the size of the biggest dinosaur, a hundred feet long, two hundred tons fully grown, the planet’s true Leviathan. They eat krill, tiny shrimp-like plankton (I tried one at the Monterey Aquarium, they're good.)
You can see a snippets of BBC photos and videos here. But blue whales were nearly hunted to extinction. Before whaling, there were an estimated quarter million blue whales in the Antarctic alone. Now there are about 2,000 in the Northeast Pacific where we are, and the same number in the Antarctic and Indian Ocean groups. There are also some blue whales in the North Atlantic and the Southern Hemisphere. News accounts said that a group of about 130 blue whales was swimming off the Southern California coast.
Our friends on Shannon, a 32 foot sloop, saw one off Newport Beach, and posted a photo in their blog. You could see its smooth blue back arcing out of the water. Lucky dogs, I thought, what a privilege to see that. So far on this voyage we’d seen lots of dolphins, but only a couple of whales (grays, probably). Now we were passing through an anchorage. Certainly there weren’t going to be any whales this close to such a crowded harbor; blue whales are pelagic, deepwater creatures. Nor would a blue whale come this close to land. But one did.
Off Quarry Beach I glimpsed something low, big and blue, shaped like a whale’s back, with a small plume of mist rising above it. Then it was gone. I rubbed my eyes. It had been right next to the shoreline, close enough to be practically on the beach. Much too close—but I saw something.
Hey, I think there’s a blue whale over there, I said to Jim, pointing.
How do you know it’s a blue whale? he asked.
Well, it was blue. And it doesn’t look like any other whale I’ve ever seen.
Are you sure?
No, I just got a quick glimpse of it.
We searched for what seemed like ten minutes and I was ready to concede that my over-eager mind had conjured it up. But there it was again, next to the beach! It surfaced three times, slowly moving at about 4 knots, breathing out a wispy plume each time, then sinking beneath the surface. It must be swimming in very shallow water, I thought. Maybe it’s scraping parasites off on the gravel, like gray whales do. In these photos the whale has moved well away from the beach to avoid anchored boats.
We slowed our speed so as to stay a little behind it and not get in its way. At least five minutes passed (it felt like ten). We couldn’t believe it would still be there after all that time. Is there any other animal that can hold its breath for that long? Then it surfaced again, just ahead and to our left. Three or four times. Its huge blowhole came up and opened like a mouth; an enormous whoosh of mist escaped and hung briefly in the air. The whale’s smooth, almost lapis-lazuli colored back arced and arced, showing us the small dorsal fin and the ridge of muscle and a bit of its sides. Then, a slight bending of the back and it propelled itself under the surface, so easily and slowly as to appear effortless. It never raised its tail flukes.
I angled the boat further out, away from shore to give it more room, and slowed again to keep out of its way. But the whale slowed, too. Five minutes later we spotted a long blue shape just under the surface, right next to us about 1 ½ boat lengths to port, gliding slowly. It was almost as if we’d been pacing each other, traveling comfortably together. It surfaced again, breathed, went under, and repeated this two more times. We were spellbound. I had tears in my eyes. Except for three amazed people on a couple of anchored boats, it seemed that nobody else saw the whale.
You can just see the blue whale under the surface in the photo above.
Sockdolager and the blue whale traveled comfortably and slowly along for about 40 minutes, moving west past anchored boats along the shore. When the whale crossed the opening of Avalon Harbor and two boats came out at high speed (they obviously hadn’t seen it,) I worried they might hit it. I began to feel very protective of this whale. But it submerged itself and probably glided right under them. We continued down the coast past Avalon Harbor, following rather than pacing alongside, then said goodbye to the whale as it surfaced, and turned back to the harbor to find a berth for the night.
Sometimes you get very lucky.