22 July 2007

Thar she blows!

All my life I've wanted to see a blue whale. They are one of the ultimate superlatives of the natural world, the largest animal - and one of the largest organisms of any kind - that has ever existed. Every school child has heard all the relevant stats. They weigh as much as 200 tons and grow to over 100 feet in length, larger than any dinosaur currently known. Their tongue weighs as much as an elephant, the heaviest animal on land. Even newborn calves are larger than most animals (and are in fact larger than the adults of many other whale species). Simply put, there is not now, nor has there ever been, anything quite like a blue whale on this planet, and with my taste for the sublime, it should come as no surprise that I've always wanted to see one. Today, I got my wish. Blue whales are, of course, quite rare, but for whatever reason they congregate in Santa Barbara Channel each summer. I took advantage of our first two-day break of the course to go on a whale-watching trip this morning, and while the price was steep, it turned out to be well worth it. We saw at least two blue whales, and it's true: they really are massive (and they really are blue, too). The picture above does not, I'm afraid, do them any justice at all, but I can now say with authority that watching a blue whale dive is one of nature's greatest spectacles. The trip would have been worthwhile if we had only seen the whales, but there was even more. We also saw a pod of Risso's dolphins feeding around our boat, a school of ocean sunfish (the largest bony fish, though these were just juveniles), lots of sea lions, and Painted Cave (a massive sea cave beneath Santa Cruz Island, one of the Channel Islands). I like to flatter myself that I've seen several examples of nature at its most spectacular (the Victorian coast in Australia, the redwoods of Northern California, and of course the volcanoes of the Northwest, to name a few), and I can confidently say that today's trip ranked among those. The only downside will be returning to class tomorrow: with apologies to Hans, the world of data analysis just isn't quite exhilarating as that of giant whales and cloud-shrouded island wildernesses...

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