The Whalenerd's Podcast
This Is What Conservation Success Looks Like
I wrote this blog last year for the Safina Center. This is a moment that stays with me in the my memory. Every once in a while I have a moment on the ocean where it feels like I am looking at an ocean ecosystem from the past. A veil of time is lifted and I can see the ocean in the pre-exploitation era.
May 2nd 2022 was a day I will never forget on the ocean. We departed Moss Landing Harbor and set our course Southwest. We heard on the radio that there was quite a gathering of whales off Point Pinos. As we got closer, we could see the blows of humpback whales rising off the water – it looked like small clouds as far as the eye could see. The water was bursting with splashes making the surface appear white.
As we settled in with the feeding frenzy we were overwhelmed by the number of phalaropes, these littles birds that feed on plankton. There were thousands of them – more than I had ever seen at once before. We surveyed the area and we estimated over 50 humpbacks, maybe as many as 100 within 3 miles of our location. California sea lions kept streaming in from the shoreline and soon were numbering the hundreds. Gulls, shearwaters, and other birds all flocked to the area to take advantage of the chaos of so many predators feeding on anchovies and plankton.
The sea lions can’t hold their breath as long as the whales, so they usually erupt to the surface first. The noise of all of them breaking the surface and catching their breath was incredible. The rushing water was so loud it drowned out the noise of the boat’s engines. Moments after the sea lions had come up, the whales came charging to the surface. Their breaths were like geysers, reaching 15ft in height from the surface of the water. The phalaropes raced around the scene – creating another layer of motion over the surface of the water.
As I stood on the deck and took in the scene, I wondered if this is what Monterey Bay looked like before Western contact. Before all the exploitation and change. Was this how the whole bay used to look? As I pondered the past I also started to realize, this is what conservation success looks like. Even 15 years ago, humpbacks were not a regular site on short range whale watching trips. Yet on this day, we saw dozens of them near our boat, and they are now a regular staple for summer whale watchers.
Monterey Bay has a history of over 200 years of exploitation at all levels of the marine food web. From the biggest whale to the smallest fish. By the time the sardine fishery crashed in the 1950’s there was nothing left to take. Monterey Bay had quite literally hit rock bottom. There was only one way to go after that, up.
While the story of Monterey Bay is currently a happy one, there is always work to do. We have seen glimpses of what conservation success looks like, and maybe even seen into the past, but our future is uncertain. Our oceans are the life force of our planet. If we hope to survive this future and the nature we currently enjoy, we need to do everything we can to protect it.