Humpback whale breaching in Monterey Bay. Photo courtesy of Nancy Black, Monterey Bay Whale Watch more
California is one of the only places in the world where visitors can see whales year-round, and there's no better place for whale watching than Monterey. While in many areas whale watchers have to go far from shore to see a whale, along the Monterey coast whales can sometimes be seen offshore with the naked eye. The Monterey Submarine Canyon, the ocean's answer to the Grand Canyon, provides a perfect habitat for many whale species, allowing them to come close to shore to feed.
A Marine Safari
Whale watching in Monterey Bay is the marine equivalent of going on a safari in Africa. "The diversity is pretty amazing," says Nancy Black, a marine biologist with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. In addition to the whales that migrate seasonally through the area, such as humpbacks, blue whales and gray whales, many other whale species are visible throughout the year. It's not unusual for whale watchers to spot a fin or minke whale. The rarely observed beaked whale, which dives for up to an hour at a time, has been known to make a cameo appearance, as has the occasional sperm whale.
Whales aren't the only marine life visitors will spot in Monterey Bay. Thousands of Pacific white-sided dolphins, Risso's dolphins and Dall's porpoises frolic in the bay almost year-round. "Seeing several thousand dolphins is not unusual," Black says. Pete Bruno, owner of Randy's Fishing and Whale Watching Trips, agrees, adding, "A lot of people would rather see dolphins than whales because dolphins are very active and will follow the boat."
"By law, boats are required to stay 100 yards away from whales," Benji Shake of Princess Monterey Whale Watching says. Whales don't pay much attention to human laws, however. "Humpback whales will sometimes show strong curiosity about the boat," Black says, adding that it's not unusual for a humpback whale to swim right alongside a boat. The humpbacks will even roll on their sides so they can look up at the ship and the humans aboard. Shake says the experience is life-changing. "If you make eye contact with a whale you are never the same again - ever," he says.
Princess Monterey Whale Watching had a video camera on hand for one close encounter with a humpback whale. They noticed the humpback was swimming toward them quickly and began filming. As the humpback swam under the boat, the videographer ran across the deck to catch its reappearance. The whale surfaced and blew, spraying water (and whale mucus) all over the passengers.
It may not be just like being there, but you can watch the video of the humpback whale encounter below.
The Thrill of the Hunt
"What's really unique to Monterey Bay," says Black, "is the killer whales hunting the gray whales." Gray whales, Black explains, normally stick to shallow waters during their migration from mid-December to April. However, in order to cross the Monterey Canyon, the grays must venture into deeper water, where killer whales lurk, waiting to make a gray their next meal.
From May through mid-December, humpback whales and blue whales come to Monterey Bay to hunt a smaller prey - anchovies and krill. Humpbacks will often spend several days feeding in the same spot, giving whale watchers a predictable location to find them. "This year there's been so much krill it looks like the sea is stained with red," a representative at Princess Monterey Whale Watching says. And more krill means more whales.
A Whale of a Resurgence
Back in the 1980s, Black notes, most whales were endangered and hard to spot. There were few gray whales, and the population of humpback whales off California numbered only 500. Now many of them have made a strong recovery. Gray whales are no longer an endangered species, and Black predicts that humpback whales will be next off the endangered species list.
Monterey Bay also provides a haven for whales that are seriously endangered elsewhere in the world. Blue whales, for example, are "doing well" in the Monterey Bay area, according to Black.
The resurgence of the whales means that whale watchers are almost guaranteed to see one on any excursion. "Odds are, 98% of the time" a whale watcher will see whales, Princess Monterey Whale Watching says.
Sometimes, however, the whale watching opportunities even surprise the seasoned veterans. "There was a week this summer where we were seeing 100 humpbacks in a quarter mile," says Black. "They were bumping into each other."
At other times, whale watching boats must sail around a little bit to find the whales. Despite what viewers see in popular culture like the film Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Black is quick to point out that the boats cannot spot whales on radar. "It's not like going to Sea World," she says, noting that whales operate on their own schedule, not a human timetable.
The unpredictability, however, means that visitors can go out on a whale watch every day of the week and see something completely different - and many do. It's the daily novelty that Bruno likes the best, even after nearly 30 years of running whale watches. "You never know what you're going to see out here," he says.
Tips for First-Time Whale Watchers
Monterey's knowledgeable whale watch leaders have several tips for novice whale watchers.
"I don't care how nice it looks," says Bruno. "Dress warm." It's always much colder on the water than it is on land. Sunny days are deceiving, he says; if it looks sunny, it's often colder because of a breeze on the bay. Shake adds that knit hats and gloves can also be a good idea.
Wear sunscreen and shades
"It's bright and reflective on the ocean," Shake says, emphasizing the need for both sunglasses and sunscreen. "Just because it's foggy doesn't mean you can't get burned," says Black. Weather conditions may also be different at sea than they are on shore. Slather on sunscreen before you board your vessel.
Take sea-sickness medication
Prepare for your whale watching excursion by taking seasickness medication at least an hour before boarding your boat, Black advises. This will give the medication time to take effect and ensure that you can enjoy the whale watch without getting queasy. If you prefer to avoid medications, Shake says, ginger products can be an effective and natural anti-nausea remedy.
Wear flat, rubber-soled shoes
The deck is likely to get wet as you sail, and a wet deck is a slippery deck. For safety's sake, Bruno says, "wear rubber-soled shoes." Leather-soled shoes are slippery and can lead to spills, he says. Shake adds that flats are the way to go. "High heels are not very fashionable on a boat," he jokes.
Secure your camera or binoculars
Some of the world's best cameras are lying on the floor of Monterey Bay. Black says that visitors get so excited to see whales, they sometimes forget to put their camera strap around their neck. One good wave, and their prized gadget is left to sleep with the fishes. Make sure that your cameras, binoculars and other gear are strapped securely around your neck (or wrist, for shorter straps).
Book Your Whale Watching Trip Now!
Seeing whales in person is a truly awe-inspiring experience. Visitors have called the experience life-changing and say it gives them a new perspective on our oceans. Book your whale watching trip now and find out what it's like to meet a whale face-to-face!
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