As I do most days after leading a kayak tour at Scorpion Anchorage on Santa Cruz Island, I took a stroll with my camera after everyone had left the island and returned to the harbor in Ventura.
As small waves crashed on the deserted, cobbled shoreline, I noticed something odd approaching the beach just before sunset. It was a dead, badly decomposed whale. As soon as the carcass was lodged and resting on the cobble, several ravens immediately landed and began to feed. This was January 3, the first week of 2020.
After observing the unlikely scenario, I didn’t think much of it. Nature has its own way of doing things.
I was the only guide on the island and the campground had few active campsites, so it was very quiet in Scorpion Canyon. In the middle of the night, though, a Santa Ana wind had developed, which is predictable in the fall and winter months. As I laid in my tent, the eucalyptus trees gently swayed above lulling me back to sleep. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but it all made sense the next morning, the forces of nature converging on the wave-battered, cobbled shoreline.
The next morning several guides came out on the Island Packers boat, which was full of passengers. When it arrived, I was up the canyon in the corral where we keep our kayaking gear. I was preparing for the day’s guided trips when one of the guides ran up and while catching his breath said, “There’s a huge great white at the beach!!”
We ran back down to the beach, but the great white was gone. The boat butted up against the pier and offloaded passengers, but Scorpion Anchorage was abuzz with the great white sighting.
With the whale carcass on the beach and the late evening Santa Ana wind conditions, the extra push from those winds forced an onshore wind event at Scorpion Anchorage. Those winds pushed the morning incoming tide further up the beach than normal, enough to where the tide was washing onto the whale carcass. It was forcing the oil from the blubber to leak out into the anchorage, and that’s what lured the great white to the carcass.
When the boat butted up against the pier to offload, visitors witnessed an extremely rare wildlife spectacle. The great white was an estimated 18-foot-long female. She was almost beaching herself to get to the whale, but when the boat pulled in with everyone screaming in excitement, the great white did a 180-degree turn and swam toward the boat. When she got to the boat, she rolled on her side revealing her female parts. She then brazenly slapped her powerful tail on the bow of the boat, and then swam off before vanishing.
Well, everyone cancelled their kayaking trip for the day, no big surprise there. However, we as guides had to do something about that dead whale. It would continue to attract predators. We managed to gain permission from the National Park Service to remove the whale from the beach. We tied a line around the whale’s tail, ran the other end of the line out to the Island Packers boat, and they pulled the whale off the beach, away from the island and out into the down coast current. Problem solved.
That day was beautiful on the island. There was no wind. It was comfortably warm. It was super glassy. The water was gorgeous, a combination of blue and green and glistening in the afternoon sun. Visibility underwater was incredible.
With no trips to guide, myself and two other guides, Hector and Marc, were thinking the great white would come back to feed. So, we jumped in our kayaks and paddled out to the carcass. We sat there for several hours hoping for her return. The gulls and fish were enjoying their pelagic bounty, but that mega fish never returned.
It was time to get on the boat and head back to the mainland. I thought about all the times paddling around the islands in areas loaded with seals and sea lions and I’ve never seen a great white. Some of those conditions I was paddling alone in deep, dark waters cloaked in fog. I thought about how many great whites I probably paddled past or paddled over.
Funny after all these years, the one place I frequent the most at the islands with no reliable food source, and the biggest great white I’ve ever seen shows up under unusual circumstances. Nature is on its own schedule, and mostly is unpredictable.