The crystalline spring

[Another current post from Maine; I’m saving the third gray whale post till next time!]

Spring comes late in Maine. It still snows sometimes, and the hickory buds struggle:


So long as it freezes every night, the ice at the edge of the stream does beautiful things:


In these tough times, small gems are to be cherished, like a single bead of water on a frond of star moss, Tortula ruralis, emerging from the snow:


And when the temperature hovers just below freezing strange things happen, like this hair ice:


The ghostly ephemeral growths are made up of ice filaments that grow from a specific winter-active fungus, Exidiopsis effusa, on dead wood. This was on a dead twig on the ground, and each rosette is about 1/4 inch across.

And the voles or shrews that lived in tunnels under the snow had the roofs of their tunnels melted by the sun, exposing their refuges to the view of passing raptors:

vole or mouse tunnel

A flock of American robins were undeterred by a late snow shower, and descended on the old apple tree, desperate for the remnants of last year’s crop:




The Gray Whale, Head to Tail: II

You never see a whole whale, but you get glimpses, from which you can reconstruct the entire animal.

They surface to breathe, and blow. When their blowholes are closed, they look like this: a pair of blowholes, with a depression between them. On this particular whale they are heavily encrusted with barnacles.


And when they are open, they look like this:


When you touch them their skin feels tight and smooth, like an over-inflated heavy-duty rubber beach toy, but they are not quite hairless. About 80 tiny stiff white whiskers (vibrissae) come out of the dimples in their heads, and they are thought to have sensory uses.*


They eat tiny organisms that are found in the mud on the sea floor, using a feeding mechanism unique to gray whales. They swim down, roll onto their right sides, scoop up a big mouthful of gunk and filter out the water and sediment through their baleen plates, leaving small crustaceans called amphipods behind. You can just see the baleen in the photo below, towards the left-hand side of the whale’s slightly open mouth.


And when one surfaces, look how the water cascades out of its mouth:


Close-up, the adults are covered in barnacles (and tiny orange “whale lice”, small harmless crabs that I failed to photograph).


They swim languidly along, apparently doing not much of anything, but sometimes they swim upside down, like this one, showing its two throat grooves (more of that later):


and roll over onto their sides:


showing the pectoral fin (on top in this photo):


Sometimes, if she decides to turn sharply, you can see the spine and tail, which has no dorsal fin, just a series of 9-13 fleshy knuckles along the backbone:


And of course, the supremely elegant tail:DSC00923

The whole animal looks like this; the drawing was made by Captain Scammon, of whom more later.




Next time, fluking, breaching and spyhopping!

* A stranded newborn grey whale calf was dissected in San Diego in 2015, and the fascinating results can be read here:





Spring snow storm

[Whales will return, but this can’t wait.]

This morning we woke up to a new world: I am not a poet, but luckily the 19th century Englishman John Clare said it all in the poem at the end of this post.*




The beaver pond had refrozen just enough to collect shadows as the sun rose:


The cottage is waiting for guests..


And when I returned, I baked my first ever loaf of sourdough (yeast is hard to get now):


* The Winter’s Spring, by John Clare 

The winter comes; I walk alone,
I want no bird to sing;
To those who keep their hearts their own
The winter is the spring.
No flowers to please–no bees to hum–
The coming spring’s already come.
I never want the Christmas rose
To come before its time;
The seasons, each as God bestows,
Are simple and sublime.
I love to see the snowstorm hing;
‘Tis but the winter garb of spring.
I never want the grass to bloom:
The snowstorm’s best in white.
I love to see the tempest come
And love its piercing light.
The dazzled eyes that love to cling
O’er snow-white meadows sees the spring.
I love the snow, the crumpling snow
That hangs on everything,
It covers everything below
Like white dove’s brooding wing,
A landscape to the aching sight,
A vast expanse of dazzling light.
It is the foliage of the woods
That winters bring–the dress,
White Easter of the year in bud,
That makes the winter Spring.
The frost and snow his posies bring,
Nature’s white spurts of the spring.

John Clare

Fifteen-foot babies: The Gray Whale I

[This post is the first of several about these remarkable cetaceans. I’ve decided to stretch it out over three or four posts because I figure you are all as bored as I am, or soon will be. I hope in these difficult times when we are all cooped up at home it helps you remember there is a big beautiful world out there that we will one day see again.]

My trip to Mexico was prompted by tall tales of gray whales that come up to small boats to be stroked. Hard to believe, right? And yet it is true. Proof:

Thanks to Said Estrada for the photo, edited by me!

The calf has its rostrum (upper jaw) out of the water, and its barnacle-encrusted blowholes on the right of the photo are closed. Its left eye can just be seen at water-level. And I am stroking a baby whale.

The gray whale, Eschrichtius robustus, is smaller than the blue whale, weighing about 40 tons and measuring about fifty feet, but even so it gives birth to a fifteen foot calf.

The Eastern Pacific population of whales spend their summers in the Northern Pacific feeding, then migrate down the coast of North America to mate and give birth in the quiet lagoons of Baja California. This migration is a round trip of up to 14,000 miles, one of the longest of any mammal. If you go to Baja between January and March, you stand a high chance of seeing them while the calves are building up blubber for their long journey north.

We stayed in Camp Ramon on the shore of San Ignacio Lagoon:


and went out twice a day in 23 foot skiffs called pangas, wading out to them in the wellies thoughtfully provided by our hosts.


The park authorities allow a maximum of 16 boats in the area on the lagoon where whale-watching is allowed, and only 2 boats are permitted near any individual whale. The area is large, many square miles. In practice we never had to share a whale.

Here are a mother and calf swimming side by side:


Some whales are skittish round the boats, as you would expect, keeping a certain distance, maybe swimming around the boat or under the boat, but not coming alongside. But for whatever reason some have decided the boats are large friendly blue creatures with tentacles that reach out and pat them, so they bring their calves to the boats and allow them to be greeted by us humans.


When they come close, they are exactly like very very large puppies:


Gray whales were hunted almost to extinction in the 18th and 19th centuries. They were known as “devilfish” because they defended themselves when hunted, often overturning small whaleboats: unreasonable, really. This is what they look like when approaching your small boat at high speed: quite intimidating if you have reason to think they are intent on revenge:


Captain Scammon, a Mainer who discovered one of the the Baja calving lagoons, worked out that if he harpooned the baby the mother would come close to rescue her, and then he could easily harpoon the mother too. It’s quite hard even to think about it nowadays.

The global population has, remarkably,  recovered to close to pre-whaling levels of 20,000. Usually the San Ignacio Lagoon count (in January, when both mating and birthing happen), is around 400. This year, worryingly, it was only 150, and no-one knows why. The hope is that they just went to a different lagoon, but those counts are not yet in.

Next time I’ll talk in more detail about how they look, feed and move.




Blue whales: the largest animal that ever lived

[This is the first of a couple of posts on whales, as a result of a trip I just took to Baja California (which is in Mexico, as opposed to upper California which is in the USA). All the photos are taken from a small rocking boat, and the whales are usually not that close, so I hope you are not disappointed! The later installments on grey whales have far more exciting photos, because they come much much closer.]

Blue whales, Balaenoptera musculus, breed in the Sea of Cortez (aka the Gulf of California) so we traveled to Loreto in Baja California to find them.


They are the largest animal on earth. One was measured at 98 feet, and 80 feet is common. Here is a photo next to one of our boats. The boat measures 23 feet, and only about 1/3 of the whale, the long grey shape to the right of the boat,  is visible above water:

Blue whale

Or look at the size of this tail, just behind the boat:


They are baleen whales, and eat only krill, astonishing that they can grow to such size.

To get a sense of what the whole animal looks like below water, look at this; just above the second image is a tiny shape of a human diver, for scale:

Blue whale

From the small boat,  you only see bits. Here is one blowing, the first part you see above water:

Blue whale

When they dive, you see the muscles that lift the tail, the powerhouse which moves their 190 tons mph at up to 25 knots in short sprints:

Blue whale

And then the tail lifts:

Blue whale

And down she goes

Blue whale

The markings under the tail help in ID-ing individual whales: the one just above is called Calabaza.  The Loreto area has 10-15 whales during the breeding season.  The Sea of Cortez is thought to have about 50 at this time of year.

Wikipedia says: “ The International Whaling Commission catch database estimates that 382,595 blue whales were caught between 1868 and 1978. The global blue whale population abundance is estimated to be 10,000-25,000 blue whales, roughly 3-11% of the population size estimated in 1911.”  Killing blue whales was outlawed in 1967, and the Eastern North Pacific population is back to close to pre-whaling levels of around 1500. Currently the major threats include ship strikes, as can be seen by the tail below; climate change, which may reduce krill populations; man-made noise pollution; and microplastics.


Also in the Sea of Cortez are Fin Whales, Balaenoptera physalis, which are nearly as large. Here is what to look for, and then a photo of one of the pair that we saw:

Blue whale

Fin whale

If you compare the Fin Whale’s dorsal fin above to the Blue Whale’s very tiny one below:

Blue whale

you can then understand why the guides think that this next one is a hybrid:

Blue - fin whale hybrid?

Near Loreto, even the clouds look like whales:

Blue whale

PS The first underwater footage of a blue whale was captured in 1980 by Krov Menuhin, a neighbor of mine in England. You can see it here; the blue whale section starts 15 minutes in:

PPS Moby Dick was a sperm whale, and although Herman Melville claimed he was the biggest creature that ever lived, at a maximum of 68 feet this is just not true! Just for fun, and for the grandkids, look at this blue whale size comparison graphic :



[Taken from ]

PPPS Our guide for the Sea of Cortez was the charming Maria Narjela.

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