Animals migrating to the area during spring

By Kristen Finley
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A pod of Biggs/Transient Orcas cruising along the edge of the Monterey Canyon in search of a meal. Photo by Robin Agarwal (ANudibranchMom) on flickr.

The warm and stable weather of springtime brings plentiful regrowth and rebirth in the natural world. Springtime in many corners of the world mean a slew of migratory animals looking to find a safe place to feed, bear and raise their young, or just for the sake of socialization, and Monterey Bay is no exception. Several species of marine mammals travel from thousands upon thousands of miles to enjoy the splendor of what our rich waters have to offer from the months of January to the end of April.

The Peninsula is arguably one of the most famous of habitats for migratory species along the west Pacific Coast due to a process called upwelling. During the fall and winter months, cold waters carrying vital nutrients are driven to the coast line by strong winds and the earth’s rotation towards Monterey Bay. Nutrients lead to healthier plankton, which attracts large schools of fish, which then attracts several species of seal as well as sea lions. Following suit is the long list of predators looking to get their slice of fish heaven. During this time, Monterey Bay is noted by many scientists as one of the world’s most productive food webs.

Dolphins

Dolphins from all sorts of coastal habitats travel in large numbers to feed on the seemingly unwavering amount of fish and squid that come to feast on plankton and small crustaceans. The most abundant in springtime feeders are the long-beaked common dolphins, Pacific white-sided dolphins, risso’s dolphins (second biggest dolphin visitor), bottlenose dolphins, dall’s and Harbor porpoises, and the orca (yes, they’re dolphins, not whales).

Some of these species travel great distances to be a part of the Bay’s springtime bounty. Orcas especially, since some pods come from the colder northern waters like the rare Southern resident ecotype of orca, while some are regular and common travelers along the California coast in search of their prey, like the biggs/transient ecotype. The Southern resident orcas specialize in hunting fish and squid like their other dolphin cousins, as they’re smaller and more vocal than the transient orcas, while the biggs/transient orca have been described to be more “viscous,” as they work as a team to bring down larger prey such as sea lions, elephant seals, gray whales and their calves, dolphins and even the mighty great white shark.

Most species of dolphin will disperse and follow their food sources to other parts of the coast line or the open ocean, though some pods of varying species have been spotted around the Monterey Bay year-round.

Whales

The most highly anticipated visitor of the Bay is a long distance traveler, the gray whale. Through tracking and tagging, it’s now known that by the time the gray whales arrive with their young calves, they’ve traveled just over 12,000 miles from their feeding grounds in the Bering sea, their birthing grounds in Baja California, all the way back to the Monterey Bay. While they’re in the Monterey Bay, they come to feed schooling fish, shrimp and bottom-dwelling crustaceans before bringing their calves up north to their feeding grounds.

This species of whale is a favorite for tourists of the Bay due to their friendliness and tolerance to humans and boats, with a trove of videos and images of gray whales swimming directly to the boat to take a peek at the curious passengers. They’re also known for being easy to find for ship captains due to their preference of shallow water in hopes of passing by the Orca’s that patrol the edge of the Monterey Canyon.

Humpback whales

Humpbacks are spotted in the waters of Monterey Bay regularly from January to November, though it’s during the springtime that whale watchers and scientists alike see these whales in large numbers. Even mothers and their newborn calves are spotted here, as they’re beckoned by the schools of fish that come for the blooms of krill. During the spring, these animals are famous for their bubble net feeding technique. As a large group, whales will swim below a school of fish and blow bubbles through their blowhole in a circle to make the fish feel trapped. Then, as a group, they’ll burst from the sea with mouths agape, swallowing thousands of fish in one gulp.

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