Whales at the Mouth of the Russian River Followup

Last Wednesday afternoon I watched Pacific Gray Whales linger very near shore for more than an hour at the mouth of the Russian River.

One explanation for their behavior was that mom and baby whale were enjoying a leisurely bath in the relatively warm water flowing out of the river.

An additional explanation is suggested by the video below. It show a mother Pacific Gray Whale and her calf under attack by a pod of Orcas in Monterey Bay.

This event, which occurred on Saturday, April 23, lasted more than an hour. The calf did not survive the attack. Predation by Orcas on Gray Whale calves in not common. It occurs only by a transient pod of Bigg’s Killer Whales and, as far as anyone knows, only here in the Eastern Pacific.

It would seem to be easier for a mother whale to defend her calf from attack in shallow water right along the shore. If the mother whale kept her calf on her right side going up the coast, Orcas could not attack from below nor from the side along the shore.

This clip is less than four minutes long and, while interesting, is not easy to watch. Viewer discretion advised.

Thanks to Richard James, The Coastodian, for making me aware of this video.

Drawing with John Muir Laws

I felt a thrill when, at the first meeting of my Naturalist Certification class, I learned that we would be required to make drawings to illustrate our journals. This was welcome incentive to draw, a skill I’ve neglected to develop for decades.

Today I took a class on drawing birds taught by John Muir Laws (in person, he goes by Jack) in Inverness, CA. Jack is a great teacher. I don’t have special talent, but after today I felt a strong sense of accomplishment. Here’s one of the drawings I did today.


John Muir Laws website.

At the Mouth—Whales!

Canoe on Penny Island

The Russian River Estuary is an excellent place for anyone interested in seeing a variety of wildlife. Today’s canoe outing started out slowly, but finished spectacularly.

A lone Great Egret waded along the north shore of Penny Island catching small fish to eat for a midday meal.

Great Egret 1130  4:20:16

About a half dozen harbor seals swam just inside the mouth where more than 200 seals were hauled out on the sand and resting. Among them were many pups. Some were nursing.

Nursing Harbor Seal Pup

Mama seal nursing her pup. I took this picture from the overlook after the paddle. I saw similar scenes from the boat, but to avoid disturbing them, I didn’t approach close enough for a good photo.

Among the harbor seal colony there was a group of about a dozen Cormorants and several times that many gulls. A couple of sea lions barked in the surf zone just outside the mouth.

Paddling back towards Penny Island, a pair of Common Goldeneyes took note of my boat’s approach. They swam off to keep a comfortable distance away.

Goldeneye Couple 4:20:16

When lunchtime came, I pulled the canoe out onto the gravel bar along the eastern (upstream) shore of Penny Island. A group of Buffleheads didn’t notice me right away and came close enough for me to make a move for my camera. My movement caught their attention and they started to swim away.

Better Buffleheads 4:20:16

The one furthest from the camera is an adult male. Not sure if the others are his harem or what.

There were only a few other paddlers out today. When the river’s practically empty of boats, the deer feel it’s safe to come out to browse on the grasses along the shore of the island. This deer didn’t hear the very slow and quiet approach of my canoe. There was time to take its picture. As soon as it saw me it tip toed back into the brush and out of sight.

Deer on Penny Island

Along the way I also saw gulls, Crows, Turkey Vultures, Mallards, and Red-winged Blackbirds, but didn’t get photos of any of them worthy sharing here.

At about 3:00 I decided to return to the launch ramp and rack the canoe on the car. As an afterthought, I decided to drive up to the Highway One turn-out that overlooks the mouth. From that vantage point, using binoculars, I could accurately count the harbor seals in the colony. There were 234 seals, not including the dozen (or more) in the river and ocean.

Ken Sund drove into the turnout and we talked a little bit when he saw a Gray Whale spout in the waves just outside the mouth of the river. There was a mother and her calf, I think perhaps more: two mothers and two calves, perhaps?

Ken explained that the Russian River’s outflow is significantly warmer than the ocean water. Calves enjoy lingering in these warm Russian bath waters, a bit of wine country luxury on their 8,000 kilometer journey to their feeding grounds in the frigid Arctic seas.

Gray Whales at the Mouth

These whales were right along the beach, the closest to shore I’ve ever seen Grays approach.


Ken and I told others visitors who had stopped at this overlook about the whales. Most people stopped there to look at the seal colony. A few had stopped simply for the view of the ocean.

Everyone was pleased to see the whales who put on a good show, spouting and holding up an occasional pectoral fin. A calf spy hopped, but, alas, this photographer wasn’t quick enough to get pixels on the memory chip.

Gray Whale Spouting Off

Eventually Ken took off to launch his kayak, paddle to the beach at my feet and then walk out on to the beach for a closer look.

Ken on Beach

Ken photographing a marine mammal in the waves. Not sure if its a seal, sea lion, or whale.

I stayed up on the overlook for 90 minutes. I told everyone who came to look for the whales and pretty soon quite a crowd gathered, intently watching the whales.


Roving Docent 2 Roving Docent Work

It was fun acting as a Roving Docent.

Earth Day Russian River Clean Up

More than 50 people gathered in Jenner in perfect spring sunshine to clean up the Russian River.

Our group split up on several missions. Some went upstream to build a fence and to maintain trails; some paddled the lower estuary picking up litter along the shores. I paddled to the mouth of the river to pick litter up from North Jenner’s Ocean Beach. This beach gets regular visits from litter-getters. For that reason, it is relatively free of obvious trash like beer bottles, plastic water bottles, tennis balls, propane canisters, and the like.

But as Cea Higgins of Surfrider Foundation pointed out in her introductory talk, little pieces of plastic are equally important to pick up.

Cea 4:16:16

Cea Higgins of Surfrider

Inedible/indigestable plastic pieces eaten by birds and fish can accumulate in digestive systems and kill them. Remember, birds and fish don’t have fingers to extract non-food things out of their mouths. (How many times have you plucked a bit of plastic wrapper that accidentally got into your mouth? How many more times if you had no fingers to unwrap your food in the first place?)

seabird with plastic

Photo Credit: www.IFLScience.com


It’s important to know that about 60% of all seabirds studied by IFL Science have plastic in their gut. According to a report published in the National Academy of Sciences, plastic ingested by sea life is most critical in the seas south of Australia where plastics and pelagic birds intermingle.

It is definitely satisfying to pull big and heavy things out of the river, as with yesterday’s girl’s ride-on motorized Jeep. But it equally important to comb beaches for small bits of plastic that might otherwise be swallowed by an albatross, gull, tern, fish or other wild creature of the ocean environment.

Plastic lure

Plastic fishing lure with small red plastic bead that looks a lot like a salmon egg. Credit card for scale.

Little bits of styrofoam are easy to find just about everywhere along the beach. In no time your collection pail will collect more than a dozen bits of food-mimicking plastic bits to go with the occasional tennis ball and plastic spice jar.

Inside of Bucket

My bucket a few minutes into its 3rd filling


The California State Parks Foundation together with several corporate sponsors organized this event with the help of local organizations like Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods.

There were lots of great people and it was a whole lot of fun.

If you’ve never taken part in an activity like this, consider adding it to your to-do list.

Earth Day Eve Litter-Getter

Tomorrow morning at 8:30 I will go to the Jenner Visitor Center to join with other volunteers in a River clean-up in observance of Earth Day 2016.

By way of warming up for tomorrow’s festivities, I canoed today out of Monte Rio, some 13 km (8 miles) upstream from Jenner, in search of recreation, birds, and garbage. There were no other boats out today and little human activity apart from an attractive young couple sunbathing on the Villa Grande beach.

Many birds were out in the 70° F sunny weather: Great Blue Herons, Ospreys, Ravens, Crows, Kingfishers, Turkey Vultures, Stellar’s Jays, Tree Swallows, gulls, sparrows, and many other small birds I’ve yet to learn. A turtle sunned high on a log. A river otter swam quickly upstream.

I picked up the usual assortment of garbage (plastic single-use beverage bottles, aluminum beer cans, lost shoes, tennis balls that got away from the retriever, and, the prize recovery: a ride-on motorized Jeep. That thing weighed more than 50 pounds and made my canoe tippy. Weight wise, it was my biggest clean-up day ever.

Ride-On Jeep 4:15:16

The ride-on motorized Jeep on its way to the recycler.

If you’re interested in joining tomorrow’s event, come on down. Organizers say that they can accommodate walk-ups.

 A map of this outing.