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Monday, October 20, 2014         

OCEAN WATCH


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Leviathan proves elusive to fan of great blue whale

By Susan Scott

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Loreto, Baja Sur, Mexico » This week I'm sailing along the coast of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, my boat's location for the last two years. Here the stunning range of mountains called Sierra de la Giganta meets the phenomenal body of water called the Sea of Cortez. On maps this strip of ocean is labeled the Gulf of California, but I prefer its former name, suggestive of conquistadors, mission bells and John Steinbeck's memorable voyage.

The meeting of marine and desert ecosystems is eye-popping, especially on some beaches where waves have sorted billions of seashells by size. Little gems line the shoreline, medium-size treasures fill the middle and bowl-like beauties pile up at the back. I'm careful not to walk too high on the beaches barefoot, though, because cactus plants in every shade of green tower, twist and squat at the shell line.

I shipped my boat to Mexico from Australia two years ago with the intention of sailing her downwind to Honolulu, but I can't leave. Besides falling in love with the area, I haven't seen my blue whale yet.

The Sea of Cortez is one of the more likely places in the world to see blue whales, or so I've heard. It seems nearly every kayaker and cruiser around here has seen one except me.

But I have faith. The blue whale is a critically endangered species, with a total world population estimated between 6,000 and 11,000, and they feed along the coast of California and in the Sea of Cortez. So as I sail, I scan the water for a glimpse of the largest animal alive, probably the largest to ever have lived.

The largest blue whale measures 110 feet long. That number doesn't paint a picture for me, but comparisons do: The biggest blue is three times the length of my 37-foot-long sailboat, or about the length of three lined-up school buses. A blue whale's heart is as large as my VW Beetle. A small child could crawl through a blue's aorta, its largest artery.

There's nothing small about blue offspring, either. A baby drinks 50 gallons of milk from its mother daily and gains 200 pounds a day.

For all that, scientists call the blue whale a little mouse. Really. Apparently, 18th-century biologists had a sense of humor when they gave the blue whale the Latin species name "musculus," meaning "little mouse."

Besides being the largest animal on the planet, blue whales are also the loudest. Researchers have recorded low-frequency pulses from blues at 188 decibels. Zero decibels is the sound least perceptible to humans. At 130 decibels our ears begin to hurt. The whales' purpose for this earsplitting (to us) din is unknown.

It's ironic that the largest animal on Earth eats some of the smallest animals in the sea. Blue whales swim the world's ocean in search of their favorite food, the shrimplike krill. Because of their size, it's thought that blue whales must eat year-round, unlike humpbacks, which eat only during polar spring and summer.

A blue whale's blow is a spectacular column of spray up to 40 feet tall that can be seen three to five miles away. So even during my shell-rich beachcombing, it's possible I will see a whale announce its presence. I live in hope.

———
Reach Susan Scott at honu@susanscott.net.






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