As we sailed passed the lighthouse that designates the Palos Verdes Peninsula, we were a few miles offshore when we heard a gasp deeper and louder than anything any of us had ever heard.
It was a familiar sound – lungs breathing air – but this time the lungs were the size of bathtubs inside a whale larger than any other creature on the planet. We looked to our right and saw the unmistakable smooth blue/gray back of a blue whale surfacing, gasping for air as it fed on krill in the waters just south of Redondo Canyon.
Shocked, we witnessed this endangered species, probably 125 feet from our 21-foot boat, linger at the surface for a few seconds then dive down. As we watched in awe, a fluke as wide as our boat was long, filled our field of vision. Over the past few years I had seen blue whales in this same general area but never quite like this.
There are laws in place establishing viewing-proximity to protect these mammals (100 yards, punishable by fines and jail time) and I abide by them. Frankly, getting closer than 100 yards to something as monstrous as a blue whale is a little nerve-wracking anyway.
They range in size from 75 to 100 feet, the largest ever recorded being 108 feet according to the American Cetacean Society (ACS). But in this case we were sailing along slowly and the whale surfaced next to us.
My prior encounters had been aboard powerboats with a diesel motor’s constant din, but this day it was silent until the whale surprised us. I think I’ll always remember the relationship I felt at that moment. It was such an exaggerated breath – one so huge and cavernous, but still a breath like my own.
We all looked at each other after the whale vanished. We stared at the ripple-less “footprint” that lingered after it disappeared. I thought about the stories I’d written in the past about blues and how there were hundreds of thousands of these mammals in our oceans before technology produced harpoon cannons that nearly eradicated the entire species.
I remembered being a child and seeing television spots about how these creatures were nearly extinct and at that time, the early 1970s, it looked very bleak for the blues.
According to the ACS, 99 percent of the blue whale population was killed by 1966. It was then that a worldwide moratorium was put in place on blue whale hunting. Seeing an animal so extraordinary, I can’t believe that just about all of them had been killed – for lamp oil – for money.
The organization indicates that while recovery has been slow, there have finally been some signs of increase. It’s now estimated that there are about 14,000 to 15,000 blue whales in the world, with the highest concentration being here in California.
My sailing crew hung around the area for a while longer watching more whales spouting mist 20 feet in the air and diving for food. After an hour or so, we headed back to Marina del Rey.
We talked about the feeling of seeing such an enormous and rare creature right here in our back yard, about a civilization powered by greed that might exterminate such a species, and about that breath — that enormous, visceral inhale that none of us will ever forget.