If you are a nature-lover like myself, get yourself to the Monterey Bay region of Northern California for a wildlife circus of critters on land, in the sea, and in the sky.
Stand out of the way if that humpback lets out a big cloud of mist from its blowhole spout. I’m a seafaring lass and have never been seasick until my recent whale watching cruise. The whales were all around the boat breaching, tail slapping, and feeding. And exhaling. I was downwind and felt the sticky mist envelop my face. One whiff of this noxious anchovy breath had me heaving over the gunwale. Advice? If you are upwind, no problemo—but if you aren’t and there is a breeze while the whale exhales—run to the other side of the boat and cover your nose and mouth!
Is this a problem? Not really. It is actually a wonderful thing to witness these gentle giants so closely. Eye-to-eye almost especially when they “spyhop” a term that refers to a full-body upward lunge and pause while the whale’s giant eye is focused on you. Some individuals are able to keep this up for minutes at a time. It can be rather disconcerting being eyeballed by a curious 30-ton cetacean. The most active spy-hoppers are orcas and humpback whales—both regular visitors to Monterey Bay.
It thrills me that their populations have made such a comeback after almost reaching extinction due to commercial whaling now outlawed in many countries. Same goes for otters. By the late 1800s sea otters were hunted to extinction by fur traders but a hidden colony of 32 were discovered in 1915 off Point Sur, California. Now there are 3000 and every otter you see swimming today has an ancestor in that tiny group.
Each time we visit Moss Landing or Monterey to go whale watching we see a plethora of otters in the kelp beds along the coast and in the estuaries. The Moss Landing Harbor has dozens swimming under the boats and in the eddies. This is also where I saw my first “otter raft”. Right off Jetty Road, otters gather to rest and play. While they sleep, they cozy up on their backs and seem to hold hands with their buddies forming a furry flotilla. I’ve seen over 100 at a time getting into this protective formation. Bring binoculars to view their playful, buoyant, entertaining antics.
This was our 3rd trip with Sea Goddess Whale Watching cruises in Moss Landing and each voyage has been spectacular with unique sightings every time. Over 30 hunting orcas and a dozen humpbacks bubble-net feeding were the stars on our most recent trip. Along with 10-foot long swooping albatross who fly back and forth solo over the Pacific Ocean from Monterey to the Midway Atoll between Honolulu and Wake Island, never landing.
Every boat has a naturalist aboard to point out the animal activity and answer questions. The Sea Goddess naturalist in the photo to the right is holding a plastic demo humpback while a group of eight really large humpbacks are lunging out of the water mouths open as they bubble-net feed right behind her!
When the humpbacks were bubble-net feeding, 30 orcas could be easily spotted in the distance.Their dorsal fin can stand six feet high like a scythe cutting through the water. They sent a male to check out our boat. He swam closer and closer until he was below my nose and under the hull. His distinct black and white markings were strikingly handsome.
On other trips within the last year we’ve seen the ocean carpeted with a thousand cavorting Risso’s dolphins, a weird table-size ocean sun fish (or mola) languidly surfacing beside the boat, pods of gray whales which the orcas feed on, a blue whale—the largest animal known to have ever existed, and schools of fish skittering on the water’s surface escaping voracious predators.
Morning is the best time to go on whale watching tours before the wind kicks up. Most companies run trips daily. The best time of year depends on which creatures you are most interested in viewing. A calendar of sighting periods and list of whale species can be found at Monterey Bay Whale Watch. Another resource is the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary field guide.
I’ve gone on cruises with three different companies and prefer the ones that leave from Moss Landing Harbor due to the abundance of otters. The harbor is also at the mouth of the Monterey Submarine Canyon, the ocean’s answer to the Grand Canyon. It provides a perfect habitat for many whale species, allowing them to come close to shore to feed as it is rich in all the yummies that whales like to eat such as krill and anchovies—hence the bad breath!
Want to throw in some culture, too? The largest collection of Salvador Dali’s art in the United States is housed in the Dali17 exhibition right across from Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey. It’s a veritable temple of the surreal with 600 of his works on display plus films about his life shown daily in the large theater. The name Dali17 ties Dali’s influence and history to the original 17 Mile Drive, where he lived for eight years. The works are the personal collection of the museum’s founder and owner, Dimitry Piterman.
If you are driving back to San Francisco and the Bay Area, take Highway 1 along the coast and top off your wildlife extravaganza with a stop at Ano Nuevo State Park. The 3-mile round-trip walk out to the sea lion rookeries is a real slice of California coastal beauty. Every year up to 10,000 elephant seals return to breed, give birth, and molt their skin amongst the dunes and beaches. Check the park’s website for information on times of year the elephant seals visit and if you need to take a docent-guided tour which is during the breeding season. The bull elephant seals can weigh up to 8000 pounds and walking among them unescorted can be a tad risky.
Whale watching tour companies:
Sea Goddess whale watching cruises offers excellent rates via Groupon. The cost is usually between $25-$35 per person for a 3-hour cruise. Sanctuary Cruises also departs several times a week from Moss Landing. Make sure to leave the naturalists a tip as they are probably starving marine biology college students.
Where to stay?
We park ourselves at the Motel 6 in Marina because it is just 9 miles south of Moss Landing, clean, and affordable ($60). Always ask for a room facing the inner garden courtyard on the 2nd floor.
Where to dine?
A most delicious question! I highly recommend these restaurants:
Haute Enchilda for lunch and dinner. Right in Moss Landing. Delicous, fresh food in a Frida Kahlo-esque cafe and garden.
Phil’s Fish Market and Eatery right at the Moss Landing Harbor. Excellent selection of beers on tap plus every type of seafood you can fish out of the ocean. Their specialty is cioppino.
Monterey’s Fish House. Classic seafood restaurant in Monterey. Make a reservation as this is a favorite with locals and tourists alike.