Known as the “Serengeti of the Sea” we were incredibly excited to stay in Monterey for 3 nights during our road trip up the West coast of America! The waters just off the coastline are part of one of America’s biggest marine sanctuaries containing extensive kelp forests and a huge underwater canyon not too far from the shore. The latter is pretty unique and makes Monterey one of the best places in the world to watch marine species because of the fantastic availability of food for wildlife of all sizes.
We got to Monterey in the afternoon and headed straight to the Fisherman’s Wharf to look for the Monterey Bay Whale Watch’s meeting point for our boat trip the next morning. While there we spent a bit of time at the end of pier to have a look at what we could see, to our amazement the marina was full of life!
Kirsten in particular was quite excited about seeing a sea otter and we watched this one for quite a while before hunger got the better of us and we headed to the weekly food market in the centre for some falafel and veggie curry.
Getting up early to another grey, overcast day we decided to wrap up putting on thermals, hats, gloves and our boots on. Feeling very warm and cosy we boarded the boat to find we stood out as most people were wearing light jackets and jeans (Mad Scots!). As our boat slowly pulled out of the harbor we got a good look at some lazy Californian Sea Lions sleeping just about anywhere they could find a space.
including the rocky sea wall, under the pier, on buoys and some even aboard the private boats in the marina!
They favour the marina as it offers a sheltered place for them to snuggle up together while they rest between fishing trips and also the chance of an easy meal with fishing boats coming in out and out regularly.
As we left the harbour our choice of winter clothing was well and truly vindicated as the temperature dropped and the wind picked up!
It only took about 30 minutes until we reached the start of the deep water canyon- by then we had moved to the front of the boat to get the best view for our 5 hour trip.
Monterey Canyon descends down for over 2 miles and is one of the five major upwelling areas in the world. Upwelling occurs where cold nutrient-rich water from the deep is forced to the surface, in this case because it is pushed from the bottom of Monterey canyon towards the coast. Upon reaching the surface the nutrients react to the sunlight creating phytoplankton blooms which support a large abundance of krill and fish and in turn attract dolphins, whales and seabirds to the area.
It didn’t take long for us to see our first whale. A massive Fin whale (The second largest animal in existence after the blue whale) appeared not to far from the boat but dived before we could get a clear shot of it.
Throughout the trip we saw an incredible amount of sea-life. We counted roughly 15 to 20 different humpbacks; usually at a distance but some were quite close to the boat;
We also got to see 4 different types of dolphin! Common dolphins played in front of the boat,
We briefly saw a pod of Risso’s dolphins but weren’t able to get any decent photos or videos and we were lucky to witness a large pod of Pacific white-sided and the dorsal fin-less Northern right whale dolphin.
For a large portion of our time out on the water we followed (as much as you can when the whales can easily disappear from sight in any direction) a transient pod of Orca’s on the hunt for their next meal. I very much enjoyed watching these massive, social ocean predators in their natural environment.
Finally, just before we returned to the marina we saw a mother Grey whale and her calf using the kelp forest by the shore to rest and feed (we saw the milk the calf had been suckling in the water!).
I can’t imagine ever looking out of my window and seeing a mother whale and calf so close but in Monterey this is commonplace as female grey whales divert to shallower water by the shore rather than take the shortcut across the deepwater ocean canyon where it is more likely they will be ambushed by a pod of Orca looking to prey on their calf. Grey whales calve in the warm waters of Mexico and have the longest known migration of any mammal because of their journey north to the rich Arctic feeding grounds off Alaska’s coast. This is an extremely perilous journey for mothers with young calves in tow and quite an amazing feat to undertake.
As the boat had taken a couple of hours longer than we anticipated we had to make a quick visit to the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. We stayed until closing time and were truly blown away by the exhibits on show and the powerful messages of conservation they portrayed. Afterwards we stumbled across an amazing vegan Mexican restaurant not far from the aquarium (soo good!) .
Our final full day in Monterey started with us hiring a kayak to explore the bay and its kelp forests hoping to spend some time bobbing along with the resident sea otters.
It wasn’t hard as they were everywhere! A rare conservation success story sea otters were hunted to the brink of extinction for their pelts along the coastline until there was only a tiny population kept secret by locals further south of Monterey. An international ban on hunting and successful reintroduction programs since 1911 have led to these mischievous mustelids re-populating of much of their historic range.
Of all the otters we saw on the water diving, eating and swimming this small raft was by far the cutest. They were taking a nap next to one another while tangled in the kelp and were happy for us to bob along next to them. We almost felt like honorary sea otters joining their raft.
We were also able to float incredibly close to the wall of sea lions and cormorants on our way back towards the marina.
Our afternoon was spent travelling down the beautiful coastal route South out of Monterey stopping at various beaches trying to see some more otters just off shore.
The kelp forests are not too far from the shore and the otters are easily visible with your own eye;
It was amazing to watch this pair relaxing and preening themselves on the surface.
We headed back into town and grabbed some Mexican takeaway before climbing over the rocks to find a seat at Lovers point where we watched another otter diving and eating.
The otters feed mainly on shellfish and sea urchins they find among the kelp forest. To break them open they balance a rock on their chest and smash the find off it, cracking it open so they can eat up- as demonstrated in the video below:
Although the otters have rebounded they are still endangered and still a conservation concern. Various human impacts have caused the otter’s population to plateau in recent years and without action their population will eventually begin to decline. There are numerous ways you can help these marvelous mustelids so many more people can enjoy such sightings as we have had.
When we rented out our kayak we also booked a paddle boarding trip at Elkhorn Slough for the day we left Monterey (we really spent all our money on excursions!).
Elkhorn Slough is an important tidal estuary North of Monterey and provides a link between land and sea for many different species. It is also home to lots of sea otters, harbour seals and sea lions which makes it a great place to explore on a paddle board.
This was the first time on a paddle board for both of us and we both ended up falling off and having an unexpected swim in the cold water!
Our guide was lovely and explained everything to us about the areas wildlife.
The trip was amazing and we were very lucky to get incredibly close to some sea otters who didn’t look too fussed about our presence as we paddled past.
I nearly went into the rocks trying to get out the way of one particularly unfazed otter;
After drying off we sadly departed the Monterey area and took the coastal route along the Pacific Coast Highway up to San Francisco.
To our amazement as we stopped by a beach for a break from driving we thought we saw a puff of water shoot into the air from a whales blow hole but to be sure we drove slightly further down the highway and stopped by a fruit stand on a cliff edge. Incredibly we were right- it was a grey whale mother the calf migrating north sticking close to the coast! Through our binoculars we could just make out the mother and the smaller shape of the calf as they took turns to surface for breath.
Could these have been the same two we saw on our boat trip on the bay? We’ll never know but we hope the calf made it to safer waters!
Maybe were dreamers but we cant escape the idea of going back to Monterey to dive amongst the Sea Kelp. Hopefully one day we’ll get to go back and maybe find a Giant Squid among the kelp?!
Our tips for a trip to Monterey;
1.) Definitely take time to explore the coastline around Monterey such as Lovers Point to look for whales, sea lions, sea otters and more from the shore as they are all visible!
2.) Our trip with Monterey Bay Whale Watch was amazing a great way to get out towards the canyon where the big whales are to be found. Do make sure to wrap out though as it does get very cold when your out on the open ocean.
3.) Kayaking and the guided paddle boarding trip were both great fun and allowed to see some of the marine life closer to their own level. We booked both with Monterey Bay Kayaks.
4.) Although we aren’t too keen on watching animals in captivity these days the Monterey Bay Aquarium was very enjoyable. The work it has done and continues to so for the sea otters through it’s sea otter program and promotion of the need of conservation through all of its exhibits was inspiring. A great place to learn more about marine life and how you can help it.
Thanks for reading.
Elliot & Kirsten.