A humpback whale breaches.
Photo courtesy thinkstockphotos.com
The humpback, blue, and California gray whale each call Monterey Bay home for at least part of the year. Knowing when to spot them can elevate your visit from terrific to fabulous. Allow us to be your chaperone.
By Peter Fish
You won't forget what you're seeing. Ever. You're standing on the deck of a boat on Monterey Bay, maybe a little bundled up against the morning breeze. Sky and bay shimmer a deep blue. And then — you spot it. A dark shape rocketing out of the water, enormous, yet elegant as it curves through the air, then shoots back down with a triumphant splash.
What you've witnessed is a humpback whale breaching — that's the term for a whale leaping out of the ocean into the air, and sometimes whirling around once or twice before it hits the water again. It's one of the greatest spectacles in nature, and Monterey Bay is among the best places to see it, because the 450-square-mile marine sanctuary is one of the easiest places in the world to watch whales.
Three cetacean species (humpback, blue, and California gray) make Monterey Bay their home at various times during the year. Each one of these species is migratory, completing long trips up and down the Pacific Coast. Monterey Bay is a prime stopping point for them, thanks, in large part, to the bay's population of krill — tiny crustaceans that are among whales' favorite foods.
The California gray whale is the one you're most likely to encounter. Each year, these animals make a 12,000-mile trip from their summer feeding grounds in the Bering Sea, off Alaska, to their winter breeding grounds in Baja California. Their numbers peak in January, on their trip south, and again in April as they migrate back north — now accompanied by calves.
Humpbacks are the bay's most exuberant performers, famed for their breaching. (Scientists are not entirely certain what purpose the acrobatic display serves — perhaps it's to mark territory, to scare off possible predators, to communicate with other nearby humpbacks, or simply to have fun.) Humpbacks are also noted for their songs, the most complex of any whale species. They normally winter off Mexico and Costa Rica, then head north in spring. Several hundred of them generally gather in Monterey Bay between April and November.
The bay's third cetacean is the blue whale, the largest animal on Earth; in fact, the largest animal that has ever lived, including dinosaurs. They can reach 100 feet in length and can weigh 150 tons. Their tongues alone weigh 2 tons. They congregate in Monterey Bay in summer and fall in search of krill — the only food they eat. Like the humpback and California gray, the blue whale has been brought back from near-extinction by the Endangered Species Act and other conservation efforts.
With so many whales spending time in Monterey Bay, you have a pretty good chance of seeing at least one during your visit. Popular shoreline observation points include the outdoor decks at Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the exhibitions inside give you an unbeatable introduction to the bay and ocean the whales inhabit. For a more in-depth experience, you can book passage on one of the whale watching ships docked at Fisherman's Wharf. Trips range from three hours to a full 12 hours on the water. The crew, and in some cases on-board marine biologists, are there to explain the majesty — and the many remaining mysteries — of these remarkable creatures.
WHEN TO WHALE WATCH
Mark your calendars and watch the show.
California gray: January and April (young calves go with the adult flow during the spring).
Humpback: Between April and November.
Blue: The largest animal on Earth can be spotted in summer and fall.
Brush up on these buzzwords before your next sea excursion.
These whales have baleen plates — a curtain of hair-like fibers — inside their mouths in place of teeth. They use the plates to strain ocean water for food like krill. Humpback, blue, and gray whales are all baleen whales.
When whales leap out of the water, often spinning around before splashing down again.
Column of air and water vapor exhaled by whales from their blowhole when they swim to the surface of the ocean. All of it is in preparation for inhaling fresh air. Whale spouts can shoot 40 feet high.
When a whale vertically pokes its head out of the water. Scientists believe it does this to see or hear its surroundings.
Underwater vocalizations made by whales, perhaps to aid in mating or in migration. Humpback whales are known for the complexity and beauty of their songs.