Monterey Bay, California lies on the west coast of the US around 133 miles south of San Francisco. It’s a place of natural beauty with cobalt blue sky mirrored in a sparkling ocean. It looks much like any other ocean scene on a sunny day as gulls soar and white surf rolls over the water in the race to shore. But Monterey Bay is different because beneath this part of the ocean is one of the deepest canyons in the earth’s seabed and it’s brimming with life. Stand on the shore and you’ll spot a whole lot of wildlife in the seas. Take a boat out to the edge of the canyon and, if conditions are right, you’ll witness the nature of the Pacific in its full awe-inspiring glory.
Monterey Bay Whale Watching
The day we went whale watching in Monterey Bay was one of the most memorable of our road trip and one which I’d been looking forward to since we arrived in California. In fact, it’s up there in the top ten travel experiences of my life. We’d already had a fantastic time the previous day, wildlife spotting as we walked the Bay, but that was to pale in the shadow of the epic boat trip we were about to take.
We walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf after filling up on ‘the best breakfast in town’ at Monterey Café and headed for the unimposing, brown, wooden hut belonging to Monterey Bay Whale Watch. Although you can reserve places they won’t confirm or allow you to pay until they are sure that conditions are good enough to go out on the water. The day dawned clear and blue with calm, sparkling sea. Perfect whale watching weather. We waited eagerly to board Seawolf, one of the company’s two boats.
We chug out of the harbour passing sea lions basking near the harbour wall, cute sea otters clinging to each other in the kelp beds and low-flying pelicans skimming the water.
On board, marine biologist, Kristin Robinson, tells us of the cetaceans that we may see on our whale watching trip. Some species pass by on their annual migration to feed at the edge of the canyon or mate in the area and others have made it their year-round habitat.
Once out to sea the engines ramp up and we cruise at a good speed across the water enjoying the sunshine and the salty breeze. Suddenly, the engines slow and a hush of anticipation falls over the boat. Everyone’s scanning the seas for signs of life. An announcement over the PR system tells us we’ve stopped to pick up a deflated helium balloon. These land in the sea and cause huge problems for leatherback turtles and other wildlife so they’re always collected and safely disposed of.
We’re off again heading in a different direction towards two other boats and there’s something out there. We slow down and spot the sun glinting off a wet, black, fin jutting from the water and there’s another, smaller fin. Orcas.
We’ve found a pod of killer whales. Seven Orcas in total and they’re fast; slipping in and out of the water displaying flashes of white as they break the surface to check us out. The killer whales are huge with males ranging from 7 to 9 metres (23 to 30 ft) long weighing in excess of 6 tonnes with straight dorsal fins up to 2 metres high. The smaller females have a curved dorsal.
Long Beaked Common Dolphins
The boat is buzzing with excitement, but there’s more. Kristin asks us to look ahead of the boat, about 200m away, at a dark patch of water. I look closer and realise that the dark shadow is a moving, leaping mass of 200-300 hundred sleek, grey dolphins and they’re beautiful. But things are about to kick off – the Orcas are looking for a kill and the long-beaked dolphins have no idea they’re being trailed. And then, suddenly, they do. Within seconds, the dark patch of water turns to a foaming frenzy as the dolphin sense danger and take flight leaping, darting and flashing through the water.
The boat is keeping up with the Orcas and we motor alongside them watching as they single out a dolphin from the outside edge of the pod. There’s a baby whale amongst the Orcas and they’re teaching it to hunt. Spyhopping, they pop their heads out of the water to locate their prey.
They pick a dolphin and, working as a team, separate it from its pod circling, chasing, leaping, closing in until the dolphin is exhausted and defeated.
The Orcas form a feeding huddle, their noses dipping beneath the surface, fins piercing the water as they feed. The blubber is the best part and will keep them going longest. A spurt of blood-red seawater bursts from a blow hole.
There’s more sea life in these waters and in the chase to hunt down their feed the Orcas have strayed into the territory of some huge Humpback Whales. True to form, they’ve got the hump about the intrusion and make it quite clear to the Orcas. The humpbacks move in on the Orcas announcing their fury by grunting and bellowing loudly as they spout fountains of spray and slap the surface (pec-slapping) of the water with their huge, barnacle encrusted fins.
At this point we don’t know where to look first – we have the family of Orcas to the left of the boat, the pod of 300 dolphins ahead of us and to our right the unhappy humpbacks. We can’t believe we’re witnessing these incredible displays of nature at such close quarters. The Orcas heed the warnings and head off which gives us a chance to check out the humpbacks as they wallow in the oily, anchovy laden waters.
The whales are huge, but they’re shy today and we don’t see a full breach. They roll sideways and flip lazily in the water before diving, exposing a fin or a shiny expanse of back. The flukes (tail fins) are the last part of the massive creatures to disappear into the depths as they cascade waterfalls of sparking sea water. We can see jets of spray right into the distance and guess that around a dozen humpbacks are around us.
We head over to some kayaks where more humpbacks are coming to the surface. Just two days before a humpback breached over a kayak sucking the two occupants deep in the water. Luckily they survived, shocked but unscathed – it hasn’t put people off. The whales are breaching just feet away from the bright red kayaks.
Two large whales dive deep for food leaving just two oily circles on the ocean’s surface. After feeding for 10-15 minutes they’ll reappear spurting jets of seawater high into the air as they surface. We don’t have time to wait for them to re-emerge – we’ve been out for around 3.5 hours and need to head back to shore. The huge pod of dolphins, which have been near to us continuously swim up alongside the boat displaying one last graceful swim-past. They flash through the water, sleekly dipping and diving and then they’re gone. It’s just the boat, the ocean and a warm breeze as, exhilarated, we head back to harbour.
Need to Know
Our whale watching tour was with Monterey Bay Whale Watch which is the company the BBC series ‘The Big Blue’ used and which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. Choose your tour carefully because some of the other boat tours leaving from Fisherman’s Wharf use recorded commentary – Monterey Bay Whale Watching has a marine biologist on board with excellent live commentary and their focus is on learning about the whales and their environment, conserving their habitat and being respectful towards them as living beings.
Places are reserved online but payment is taken on the day in case of bad weather. We took the 9am sailing as we figured the earlier 8am boat will have located the wildlife already and no time would be wasted searching. We paid $49 per person for this trip which we agreed is excellent value – if no whales are sighted the company offer a free trip. Previous day’s sightings are posted on their Facebook page so you can get an idea of what’s likely to be out there.
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Next stop on our road trip is Oakhurst and a visit to Yosemite National Park.