Exploring Monterey Bay
Monterey Bay, California is a hotspot for marine mammals. Noisy sea lions jockey for position on jetties as harbor seals laze on the rocks. Sea otters form rafts in the kelp, nursing their young and cracking mollusks. Pods of Dall’s porpoise, harbor porpoise, and bottlenose dolphins patrol the bay, while further offshore, humpback whales breach in dramatic surges and colossal blue whales migrate to summer feeding grounds. Depending on the time of your visit, you could also see orcas, minke whales, fin whales, northern fur seals, or gigantic elephant seals.
Paddling the Bay
Kayaking is a great way to see wildlife, so for our first day we took a trip with Monterey Bay Kayaks. Being closer to the water gives you a unique perspective, and moving slowly and quietly means less disturbance to the animals. Leaving from the Municipal Beach in a tandem sea kayak, we paddled out to the first pier where we were greeted by a cacophony of California sea lions. Just beyond, we spotted our first wild sea otter. Soon, we were surrounded by otters as we continued past the docks of Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. On our return trip, a harbor seal greeted us with a blast of air and playfully followed for a few hundred feet. That is the kind of experience you just can’t appreciate in a bigger boat.
On Safari in Elkhorn Slough
Elkhorn Slough is a 7 mile long tidal slough just up the coast from Monterey that provides habitat for sea otters and hundreds of species of birds. The best way to see the slough is by water, so on our second day we took a boat tour with Captain Yohn Gideon of Elkhorn Slough Safari.
Within minutes of leaving the dock, we were treated to an unexpected glimpse of a humpback whale spouting beyond the mouth of the harbor. As we continued our journey, dozens of riotous sea lions occupied every available dock and harbor seals ducked and dove around the boat. Elegant terns zipped in and out of the water. We passed nesting Brandt’s cormorants, great egrets, and countless brown pelicans. Of course, sea otters are the star of the show in Elkhorn Slough, and we saw over a hundred during the course of the morning – a considerable proportion of the approximately 3,000 total wild sea otters living in California waters.
After returning to land and eating lunch at Phil’s Fish Market, we had a front row seat for an incredible display of humpback whales feeding. Some of the whales were only a few hundred yards offshore. For over an hour we watched whales spouting, breaching, smacking the water with their massive pectoral fins, and raising their tail flukes high as they dove.
After the whale activity quieted down, we took a walk up the beach. We encountered an octopus in the surf and many curious creatures called by-the-wind sailors, or Velella velella. These alien looking relatives of the jellyfish float at the mercy of the currents catching plankton in their tentacles. Sometimes the winds blow them to shore in great numbers and they were washing up by the thousands during our visit.
Monterey Bay Aquarium
No visit to Monterey is complete without visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Here you can view over 600 species of plants and animals. The kelp forest exhibit provides a close up look at species native to the Monterey Bay, such as the peculiar looking ocean sunfish, leopard sharks, and California sheephead. The aquarium also features a sea otter exhibit. Behind the scenes researchers work to protect and better understand the species. Besides being ambassadors, some of the otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium serve as surrogate parents for orphaned pups.
Kayaking with Whales
After seeing the whales feeding from shore, we knew we had to find a way to get in the middle of the action. Fortunately, Kayak Connection in Moss Landing had a trip going out the next morning. We signed up on the spot and were so excited that we could hardly sleep that night.
The whales were further offshore the next day. For the first couple of hours we paddled straight out into the open ocean until we were several miles from shore. We had only seen distant spouts and for a while it seemed like we were going to be skunked. I began to wonder if we had made the right decision by choosing to go whale watching by kayak. We were having fun, and we had seen other wildlife, including a lion’s mane jellyfish, but of course we wanted to see whales.
Finally, a whale spouted just a few hundred yards away. It was a humpback whale bubble net feeding. When bubble net feeding, a whale will dive below a school of fish and create a wall of bubbles to confuse and force their prey to the surface. Then, the whale will lunge upward with mouth open, capturing hundreds of fish at a time. When the whale dives, it may disappear for five or ten minutes at a time. The Marine Mammal Protection Act and common sense both dictate that one keep a respectful distance from whales, but it can be anyone’s guess when and where one will surface next. Bubbling water and leaping anchovies are a good sign you are above a whale. Suddenly, we found ourselves in precisely that spot.
“Don’t go near the bubbles”, our guide said. I looked over my shoulder to see him back paddling. We hastily did the same and then witnessed as the great whale surfaced in front of us. It was the moment we had paddled all morning for. Seeing a massive humpback whale from a tiny kayak was a thrilling experience, and one of my greatest wildlife moments ever.
Hanging with Sea Otters
On the last day of our trip, I wanted to dedicate more time to photographing sea otters so we met up with Captain Yohn for another morning on Elkhorn slough. For this occasion, I brought the 600mm lens and anchored my tripod to the railing of the boat with a super clamp. The 80-400 stayed mounted on a second body for closer action.
With good light, and the slough essentially to ourselves, we saw lots of otters and behaviors like grooming, clam cracking, and even some mothers with pups. The Captain did a great job of getting the boat into position and avoiding any disturbance to the animals. Although it is possible to photograph otters from shore, you are depending on a fair bit of luck getting them in the right place. Shooting from a boat is far more efficient and improves your chances for success.
Planning Your Trip
We had a fantastic time in Monterey and can’t wait to return. I highly recommend a visit to anyone interested in marine wildlife. If you want to watch humpback whales, kayak with sea otters, or maybe just relax by the ocean, you’ve got to go!
Come back and tell me how it went. I bet you’ll have an adventure to share!