Photo courtesy gettyimages.com/solovyova
Monterey Bay’s far-reaching seascape is breathtaking to behold from beaches and cliffs along the coast, but it’s even more beautiful up close. The bay is located within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected marine area. Extending an average distance of 30 miles offshore and encompassing 6,094 square miles of ocean in total, it’s the largest protected ocean area in the continental United States. Whether you prefer to stay on the surface or duck under the waves, there are a variety of ways to explore the watery realm.
By Jill K. Robinson
If you dream of letting the ocean wind whip through your hair while relaxing out on the water, letting the crew do the work while you scan the horizon for signs of sea life, sailing’s the perfect activity.
At Monterey Bay Sailing, private cruises of seven or more passengers are a festive way to gather the family together for something beyond the ordinary. The reputable outpost is also known for its popular sunset cruises, which feature snacks, wine, and even blankets for those crisp evenings. Its two-hour tours explore the bay more deeply, and marine life is definitely the star attraction.
Monterey Sailing & Boat Charters offers an exceptional whale-watching cruise as well as private family outings. Event cruises — weddings, engagement parties, and the like — are also available. Both businesses depart from Old Fisherman’s Wharf for daily cruises throughout the year.
Kayaking and SUP
One of the most popular ways to be close to marine life (such as brown pelicans, cormorants, seals, sea lions, sea otters, jellies, and sea stars) is by kayak, where you can leisurely paddle along and enjoy. Stand-up paddling (SUP) is a bit more active because it requires paddlers to balance upright, but the sight angle into the water makes it much easier to see animals below the surface.
Monterey Bay Kayaks and Adventures by the Sea offer kayaking and SUP excursions from different locations, including Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lovers Point, and Moss Landing. The former offers a rare opportunity to explore Point Lobos — for three hours, in fact — on one of its most popular tours. This comes packed with plenty of education on the area’s marine life. Wetsuits are provided.
If you’re a beginner or haven’t surfed here before, several shops and schools in the area like On the Beach Surf Shop, Monterey Bay Surf Lessons, and Carmel Surf Lessons offer surfing instruction and rental gear. Visitors to the latter benefit from instructor Noah Greenburg, who has been teaching surfers for more than 30 years. Advanced riders can enjoy breaks from Lovers Point to Big Sur, and the shallow waters near Del Monte Beach are awesome for newbie shortboarders. Asilomar State Beach and Carmel Beach are ideal for surfers when waves are lower than waist high and less likely to have powerful riptides.
Monterey Bay lures divers from around the world. Beginners can book classes and dive tours from Aquarius Dive Shop, which is the only dive center in Monterey with a full-time course director on staff. Dive classes are key; however, the dive tours here — including a night tour — stand out. There are few other diving experiences quite like swimming through the kelp. Rays of sunlight filter through the thick leafy canopy at the surface, illuminating a world filled with brightly colored anemones and sea stars. Seals and sea lions dart past you at breakneck speeds, hunting the abundant fish that make their home near, in, and around the kelp forest.
The waters of Monterey Bay follow Monterey Canyon, one of the deepest canyons on the West Coast, so it’s common to spy whales from beaches and cliff tops here and along the Big Sur coastline. Orcas and minke whales are in residence in any season, but it’s the blue (June–October), humpback (April–December), and California gray whales (December–May) that increase your chances to see that telltale spout from the shoreline. Get closer to the action with a boat trip through outfitters like Monterey Bay Whale Watch (marine biologists lead the way), Discovery Whale Watch (includes narration by a naturalist well-versed in local marine life), and Princess Monterey Whale Watching (outgoing and informative guides, heated cabin, snacks, and beverages).
When to Watch
Plan your next whale sighting according to the seasons.
Hail January. You can spot more than 30 whales an hour at places like Point Pinos in Pacific Grove. Drive down the coast to Big Sur and stop at any of the turn-offs for a chance to catch sight of the southbound gray whale.
Gray whales — moms and calves — pass through at this time. You may even spy an orca. But by late spring, the cherished humpback whale always begins making its way back to
It’s feeding season. Humpback, blue, and fin whales make a meal of it at this time. Why? Spring and summer upwelling brings cold, nutrient-rich seawater toward the surface. The result fertilizes the phytoplankton — the base of the food chain. This event has also been called “Wind to Whales.”
Hungry and feeding whales begin to slow down and migrate, but many more begin to pass by the coast. This is also a time to possibly see a variety of dolphins, northern elephant seals, orcas, and a few early gray whales.