These whales have a big presence in the summertime


By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

The largest animal on earth is the blue whale, which can be 100 feet long and weigh 150 tons.

According to John Hildebrand, head of the whale acoustic lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, one of the best places to see this endangered species is right here, between San Diego and Santa Barbara. “We’ve seen them just two miles from the end of Scripps Pier!” he said.

The big blues, hunted close to extinction by 20th-century whalers, seem to be making a comeback along the SoCal coast, with about 2,500 drawn by plentiful supplies of krill, the tiny, shrimp-like plankton they consume by the millions every day.

Blue whales are only one of the species featured in “Voices in the Sea,” an interactive exhibit that debuted at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach in 2003, developed in partnership with SIO.

Now in a newly expanded format, the award-winning exhibit allows visitors to listen to whale calls, watch rare footage of endangered cetaceans, even get a chance to make whale calls themselves. It is on view at seven institutions around the country, including our own Birch Aquarium, whose earlier version of the exhibit was installed in 2008.

“I’m very happy with the new website and social-media connections that will help build a community of interested people,” Hildebrand said. “Now when someone learns something new, we can all find out about it!”

Hildebrand said his lab has been a kind of nursery for “Voices,” producing much of the content, with research associate Josh Jones doing most of the work on interviews and videos. Hildebrand himself is featured in one of the blue whale mini-videos.

Over a decade ago, he was sought out by Pacific Life, an Orange County insurance company whose symbol is the humpback whale. The company had taken an interest in whale conservation and research, and asked Hildebrand to help identify fund-worthy topics and species. It has been a productive arrangement: Pacific Life Foundation funded research by Hildebrand’s lab and is the underwriter of “Voices.”

At the Aquarium of the Pacific, Southern California’s largest aquarium, the 3-kiosk exhibit overlooks a life-size model of a blue whale. Even better, a high-speed catamaran docked close by goes out twice daily on whale-watching cruises with an aquarium expert on board.

On a recent trip, we saw five blue whales, two of which circled the boat several times, checking us out from less than 20 feet away. It was a mom teaching her supersized baby to dive; they’d stay down eight minutes at a time, then return, again and again. For all of us onboard, including the captain, this was pretty exciting. Gray-looking from above, they really do look blue underwater, and though we didn’t see their tongues, we were told each weighed as much as an African elephant.

We didn’t hear them calling either, though they have the loudest, deepest voices in the sea. They have to: with their vast range, they need long-distance communication — say, from here to Hawaii.

“People travel thousands of miles away to go to wild places, but it’s wild right here with some of the highest diversity of marine life in the world,” said AOP education director Dave Bader, pointing out a septet of molas, aka sunfish, just below the water’s surface. These flattened-out pufferfish relatives can grow to huge sizes, though the ones we saw were fairly petite. Still, they were the first I’d ever seen in the wild.

For a great family day-trip, combine a visit to the Aquarium of the Pacific with a 3½- hour Sea Life Cruise. You’re almost certain to see whales in the ocean, and there’s plenty to do at the aquarium, with 11,000 other animals on view.