With picture-perfect weather on Wednesday, Liz Vernand and a friend decided to enjoy a 30-minute helicopter ride into the Santa Barbara Channel.
They had no idea that they'd soon be hovering over a swirling mass of anchovies so enormous that it dwarfed the dolphins and whales that were feeding on the schooling bait fish.
"We actually watched the two whales traveling toward the bait ball," said Vernand, explaining that dolphins had corralled the anchovies into the massive bait ball.
The photograph atop this post lends a unique perspective. Viewers can see two humpback whales just to the right of the anchovies (the white streak is the underside of one of the whale's pectoral fins).
A surfacing dolphin is visible next to the whale at the lower right. Another dolphin is swimming alongside the bait ball, above the second whale. The birds, of course, are waiting for any chance to nab some of the fish.
Vernand said the whales were lunge-feeding into the mass, horizontally. The bait ball, she added, would sink down during the lunges, making it hard to capture in a photograph from straight overhead.
Late Wednesday, however, Channel Island Helicopters posted video showing the whales lunge-feeding through the mass of anchovies (shot by the crew, posted above). The helicopter pilot did not fly low enough for closeups, out of respect for the animals and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Humpback whales can measure to about 50 feet. The bait ball looks to measure at least 100 feet across, and could involve millions of anchovies.
Its location was about five miles offshore, beyond Rincon Point in northern Ventura County.
"But it was just amazing," she said. "We were supposed to be on a 30-minute trip, but we ended up staying out there for an hour."
A Channel Islands Helicopters spokesperson said it was one of the largest bait balls the company's pilots have ever seen.
–Note: This has been a boom year for anchovies off much of California, and humpback whales have been feasting in this manner for weeks, most notably in Monterey Bay
–To view more of Liz Vernand's photographs, visit the Channel Islands Helicopters Facebook page