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  • Nancy Webb

Whale am I? - Monterey Bay - the Serengeti of the Sea

Updated: Sep 16, 2022

Breaching Humpback

August on the Texas Coast, my home – is hot and humid with an average heat index of 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit (F). The torrid heat begins in June and doesn’t let up until the cool fronts begin arriving at the end of September. However, there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow as we have some of the most spectacular weather in the country for the remaining eight months of the year. So, every year in August in order to get a respite from the worst of the heat I escape to somewhere a bit cooler. Past destinations have included Ireland, the San Juan Islands, and Canada.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

This August, I headed to Monterey Bay, California – 130 miles south of San Francisco. Monterey Bay summers are dry, cool, and sunny with an average temperature of 68 degrees F. What keeps it so delightful in the summer? Monterey Bay a National Marine Sanctuary is home to the Monterey Canyon, a deep submarine canyon with huge walls, trenches, and twists and turns that rival the Grand Canyon in size and grandeur. This canyon extends over 50 miles offshore, reaches depths near 12,000 feet, and bisects the coastline extremely close to the shore. This canyon funnels in cold water from the ocean depths – resulting in an average bay temperature of 55 degrees F – which cools the summer air to that perfect daytime temperature of 68 degrees F.

I am not the only mammalian visitor that travels to Monterey Bay. The Monterey Canyon brings in colder oxygenated water which allows deep water species of whales, dolphins, and seabirds to travel close to the coast of this part of California. The biodiversity found in Monterey Bay that attracts 34 species of marine mammals is fueled by converging warm and cold-water zones as well as seasonal winds and offshore traveling currents which create upwellings sending nutrient-rich waters to the surface providing the raw materials that feed plankton and large kelp beds which in turn provide the necessary ingredients for habitat rich with krill, crabs, snails, sea stars, octopus, squid, and fish such as sardines.

Standing on the shore of Monterey Bay and you will spot otters, seals, sea lions, and occasionally some of the rock stars of the ocean – whales. However, if you want to spend some quality time up close with the whales the best way is to take a trip with one of the Whale Watching Boat Tours out of Fisherman’s Wharf or Moss Landing.

Monterey Bay Whale Watch

I went with Monterey Bay Whale Watch an outfit owned, operated, and captained by Marine Biologist Nancy Black. Captain Black was featured on a recent PBS Nature Episode – The Whale Detective. The Headquarters can be found on Fisherman’s Wharf. You can go online, email, or call to reserve your space on the trip of your choice, but they don’t allow you to pay until they are sure the weather conditions are good enough to go out on the water. If you have a well-behaved dog – then they too are welcome to come along. They offer multiple 3 and 4-hour trips leaving both in the mornings and afternoons – 7 days a week. They even have an 8-hour trip and a couple of times a year – they have a 12-hour trip. I was lucky enough to join one of the 12-hour trips. When I initially reserved my space, I thought it would be way too many hours on the boat – but I was wrong – the day flew by and I could have easily spent another 12 hours out there. There were plenty of places to sit outside and a few spots inside – along with two heads (marine toilets.) It was recommended to dress in layers – as the wind and cloud cover can change so quickly while you are on the water. I can say that every layer was needed at some point in the trip – but there were times – that I was down to leggings and a T-Shirt. It was foggy starting out – but I was also layered up with sunscreen – as I can get burned no matter what the weather is like.

Sea Otter Waving A Goodbye

25 passengers left the harbor with Captain Black and a deck hand – Dane (also a Marine Biologist) - at the helm of the PT Sur Clipper at 7:30 a.m. sharp. Photographer Daniel Bianchetta was also on board and I want to make sure he gets the credit for the gorgeous photography featured in this article. As soon as we pulled out of the slip – we saw a cute as hell sea otter bobbing on the surface along with sea lions and cormorants jostling for turf on the harbor wall.

Risso’s Dolphins with Casper

Once out on the bay, the engines ramped up and we cruised for about 30 minutes at a good speed across the water in the fresh and salty air. All 25 of us were full of anticipation and getting to know each other – while of course checking out each other’s camera gear. Becky from Seattle won as she had the longest lens. The engines slowed down and we all got quiet as we quickly spotted a pod of about 40 lively Risso’s Dolphins actively feeding as evidenced by the continual diving of the group. The pod had a VIP in the group – Casper (originally named in 2015 by our ship’s photographer.) Casper is an all-white (leucitic – not to be confused with albino) Risso’s Dolphin – and is a frequent visitor in Monterey Bay. The Risso’s are quite energetic and we stayed alongside them in neutral for about an hour – I could have stayed there all day, but we had bigger things on the agenda.

Humpback Mother with her Calf

Humpback Whales

We started moving north on our trip and came across multiple groups of Humpback Whales. The majority were resting at the surface or feeding using a deep diving method. They surface for a short period for air several times and then come up one final time – which is usually longer to get a lungful and then begin their dive which is evidenced by their flukes (tail fins) coming up out of the water to propel them down, releasing cascades of sparkling sea water. We can see several jets of spray from their exhales around us and speculate that there are about a dozen feeding nearby.

The humpback is a baleen whale and filters its food, its main food being krill, squid, and small schooling fish – such as sardines. Like other baleen whales, they are gulp feeders – swallowing prey in bulk by expanding the mouth gape and then pushing water out through the baleen. Adults range in length between 46 – 56 feet and can weigh up to 60,000 pounds. They maintain their figures by eating about 3,000 pounds of food a day. They have a distinctive body shape, with long pectoral fins and a knobby head. It is known for breaching, and other distinctive surface behaviors, making them popular with whale watchers. Scientists are not completely sure why they breach. Are they showing off to the opposite sex, or are they bulking up for migration? The Humpbacks that visit Monterey Bay feed in the northern Atlantic during the Summer Months and winter and breed and give birth in the coastal waters of Mexico and South America.

As I mentioned, Whales are the rock stars of the Ocean and humpbacks can belt it out. Humpback males produce complex songs lasting between 5 minutes and 7 hours during the winter breeding season, the sound of which can travel for up to 6 miles. In 1977 NASA launched the Voyager spacecraft to explore our solar system and beyond. Well-loved American astronomer, planetary scientist, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, author, and science communicator Carl Sagan compiled Humpback Songs and included the tracks on the Voyager’s 12-inch gold plated records joining human greetings in 64 languages and sounds of music, other animals, and nature for the trip to the farthest reaches of the Universe. The spacecraft was launched in 1977 and is now 14,404,865,774 miles away from Earth in what is known as Interstellar space.

Like other large whales, humpbacks were a target for the whaling industry. We once hunted the species to the brink of extinction. The humpback whale population fell to only 5,000 individuals by the 1960s. While the numbers have partially recovered to approximately 135,000 animals worldwide, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with ships, food scarcity, and noise pollution continue to affect the species.

Blue Whales

Suddenly we are heading in a different direction toward other boats on the horizon. We slow down and on the starboard side – we spot two long ovals in the water – with very small fins - of course as compared to the size of the animal. Although it was still quite early in the day – we hit the jackpot – a Blue Whale Cow (Mom) and her Calf (baby.) Blue Whales are the largest animals to have ever lived on the planet and are on the Endangered Species List due to hunting and ship strikes. They feed almost exclusively on krill – small shrimp-like critters – straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates (which hang from the roof of their mouth and work like a sieve.)

They have long bodies and are slender in shape. Their mottled blue-gray color appears light blue under water – which is how they got their name – Blue Whale. They can reach up to 110 feet (three big school buses) and weigh more than 330,000 pounds. The blue whales spotted in Monterey Bay spend summers feeding in the colder northern waters of the US and Canada and migrate towards the equatorial waters around Mexico and Central America when winter approaches. They are one of the loudest animals on the planet, emitting a series of pulses, groans, and moans, and can be heard by other whales up to 1,000 miles away. Scientists think they use sound for communicating as well as to sonar-navigate the dark depths of the ocean. We spend about 45 minutes cooing over the pair and do spot them several more times during the trip.

Humpback Lunge Feeding aka The Big Gulp

The sun was getting lower on the horizon and we knew we would be heading back to the harbor soon. But suddenly, spouts started appearing all around our boat and we were surrounded by humpback whales again. Everywhere we look we saw spouts and humpbacks lunge feeding. It was truly a special treat to see the massive animals breaking through the surface of the water with their mouths wide open, straining through thousands of gallons of water to obtain as many fish as possible. We hung around with the vessel in neutral for about 45 minutes and were very sad to have to leave the feeding frenzy and head back to shore.

There is no one best time for whale watching in Monterey as each season brings its own visitors. April – December is the migration period and you will see humpbacks, blue whales, orcas, and dolphins. January through March you will see grey whales, dolphins, and orcas.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act

Responsible whale watching is an activity that can impart economic value to whales and dolphins and subsequently provide an incentive to preserve them in their natural habitat. The majority of whale watching tour operators, managers, and employees recognize that they are responsible for regulating to understand both the benefits as well as the potential negative impacts of this activity. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was enacted in 1972 to protect the vulnerable populations of all marine mammals in response to growing concerns among scientists and the general public that some marine mammals were in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of human activities. The MMPA set forth a national policy to prevent marine mammal species and population stocks from diminishing, as a result of human activities, beyond the point at which they cease to be significant functioning elements of the ecosystems of which they are a part.

General Guidelines include (but are not limited to) the following:

Give Whales Space - To avoid harassing a marine mammal, stay at least 300 feet – then lengthy of a football field – away from whales.

Drone Operators - Buzzing, hovering, landing, and taking off near marine mammals is likely to harass the animals and should be avoided.

Boaters – If you see a whale, slow down and operate at a no-wake speed. Stay out of the path of the whale’s direction of travel. Do not place your vessel between whales, especially mothers and calves. Do not chase or harass them, and do not approach the animals head-on, from directly behind them, or from the side (T-bone). Instead, gradually steer the vessel to be parallel to the animals from the side and stay at least 300 feet away.

A failure to follow the MMPA guidelines could lead to whales and dolphins leaving the area where they are watched and under pressure, or even a significant drop in population numbers due to stress and an inability for the animals to engage in important functions like feeding and resting - and of course no more whale watching trips.

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