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Hangin’ with Humpbacks

April 5, 2013

The most ambitious activity we had slated for our time in Carmel was a whale watching excursion. On Saturday morning the ocean was calm enough to give it a go, so after I returned from my morning run and showered up, we dressed in layers and grabbed even more layers. Whale watching on the Pacific is cold, windy business, so we packed enough clothes to go skiing and headed toward Monterey to catch our boat.

Monterey is the nearest town to Carmel and is home to Fisherman’s Wharf, where our whale watching adventure began. We had some time before our ship sailed, so we strolled around the wharf for a bit.

Fisherman's Warf

Fisherman’s Wharf used to be a commercial wharf, but is now mainly a tourist area lined with seafood restaurants.

Fisherman's Warf

Almost every restaurant offered free samples of their clam chowder as we walked by. I was really tempted to do a clam chowder tasting while we were killing time, but later I was really glad I hadn’t gone through with it.

Sea Lions

While walking around we spotted a family of sea lions basking in the sun near the wharf. The sun was so intense that soon we were shedding layers, and the rays felt so good on my skin.

Princess Whale Watching

We bought our tickets when we first arrived at the wharf to ensure that there would be space and that we would be able to get the primo top-deck seats. There are several whale watching companies operating out of Fisherman’s Wharf, and we went with Princess Monterey Whale Watching, which my aunt knew to be one of the best.

Whale Watching

Tickets aboard the Greatland were $40 each and we spent an additional $20 a piece for seats on the top deck. The views from the top were better than down below, plus it was easier to switch your focus from one side of the ship to the other without having to run around. It was also less crowded and there were some highly obnoxious people on the bottom deck of our boat, so we made the right call.

Princess whale watches include a marine biologist who is on the microphone the whole time, and in my opinion that really added to the quality of the trip. Our marine biologist was an energetic woman who was eager to share her knowledge of the area and the animals we saw throughout our voyage.

Sea Lions

As we pulled out of the harbor, we passed a jetty where dozens of sea lions lay sunning themselves. The smell was awful, but it was cool to see the animals up close (and then cool to be up-wind of them).

Monterey Coast

As we pulled away from shore the temperature dropped a quick 20 degrees and the wind picked up. I was so glad we had packed layers.

Whale Watching

This is a “before” picture. I made pretty sure an “after” picture didn’t exist, but I ended up wearing a parka, fleece headband and baseball hat in addition to the fleece, sweater, scarf, gloves, top and jeans I had on to begin with. And I was still chilly.

One of the nice things about going whale watching in Monterey Bay is that you don’t have to go very far out into the ocean to see some action. Most whale watching excursions are all-day affairs, but ours was only a 3-hour tour. (Insert the obvious joke here.)

Monterey Bay

Monterey Bay is a protected marine area, so the waters are cleaner than just about anywhere off the coast of the U.S. Also, the Monterey Submarine Canyon in the middle of the bay is the third deepest underwater trench in the world and comparable in depth to the Grand Canyon. This all adds up to a great feeding environment for whales within a few miles of the coastline.

We were only a few minutes into our voyage when we had our first spotting – a pod of Risso’s Dolphins!

See the dolphin fins?

See the dolphin fins?

Risso’s are some of the largest dolphins and appear almost white due to scars covering most of their bodies. Our marine biologist told us that these are some of the most aggressive dolphins out there, and many of the scars come from other Risso’s. They are not to be messed with.

After cruising along with the dolphins for a few minutes, we headed for deeper waters in search of the big boys. We were underway at a fast pace for probably about 15 minutes before we slowed down to try to spot whales. We were all supposed to be on the lookout for their spray shooting up above the water, but breaking waves made everything and nothing look like a whale to me. We’d drift then motor, drift then motor for a while until we hit the jackpot – WHALES!

Not only whales… Humpback Whales!

In these waters Grey Whales are very common, but apparently they are pretty boring to watch because they don’t do much. Humpbacks are much rarer, but much more theatrical as well. Our biologist said she’d seen this pair of whales around here before. They are distinguishable by the patterns on their tails, which are as unique as a human fingerprint.

I didn’t even try to capture any photos of the humpbacks because they were far enough away that I knew iPhone photos wouldn’t do them justice. Also, glimpses of them were pretty fleeting, so I didn’t want to miss out on the moments because I was reaching for my camera. Some of the people on our boat had cameras with zoom lenses as long as my arm, so hopefully they got some good shots! I borrowed these images from around the web, so check out the “source” links below the photos if you’d like to learn more about who took them.

Like I said, humpbacks are known to be some of the best whales to watch. We didn’t quite see any of this:

But we did see plenty of this:

It was really cool to see their tails disappear beneath the water as they dove down to feed. One of the most interesting behaviors we were able to watch was when they would lift their tails out of the water and then smack them down on the surface really hard. The splashes they created were enormous. I’m sure our marine biologist explained why they were doing that, but I missed it.

We bobbed along with this pair of whales for about an hour, and saw quite a bit of them as they swam along feeding. It was awesome because we’d get views of their backs or tails for a minute, then they’d disappear, only to reappear somewhere else in the vicinity a few minutes later. Whale watching is like a team sport in that everyone is on the lookout for the same thing, and once the whales resurfaced everyone would be yelling and pointing in the direction of where we should look. It was pretty cool.

You know what isn’t cool? Seasickness. The only drawback to the hour we spent floating alongside the whales was that when a boat is just floating in the open ocean, you roll around a lot. I grew up on boats and have been on a few cruises and had never gotten truly seasick until now. I popped some anti-nausea meds when I first started feeling off, but it must have been too late. It didn’t get bad until we were getting toward the end of our tour, so I was in much better shape than the poor woman who was leaning over the back railing for most of the trip. I share this part of the story not to over-share, but to warn you that if you have problems with motion sickness, or even if you never have before, whale watching can be tough on the tummy.

We also saw a pod of Grey Whales in the distance, but by that point I wasn’t paying much attention to the whales. My seasickness hit at the perfect time (if there is such a thing) in that I enjoyed most of the trip but was more than ready to head back to shore at the end.

Back to Shore

Back on solid ground, we headed over to Cannery Row to walk around and find somewhere for lunch. I wasn’t exactly hungry, but I was hoping some carbs would help settle my stomach when I dominated the bread basket at Paradiso Trattoria. I didn’t photograph lunch, but Paradiso was a good spot with a great bay view that I’d recommend if you’re in the area around lunch time, especially given how tourist trappy a lot of the surrounding restaurants seemed.

After lunch we walked around a little bit but were all pretty zapped by our whale watching excursion. It amazed me how exhausting it was! I guess the sun, cold, wind and constant motion took more out of me than I realized. The seasickness probably didn’t help either. The coolest thing I saw while walking around was this adorable little girl playing a community piano.

Monterey PIano

It was one of several old, painted pianos we saw around town inscribed with “Play Me, I’m Yours.” Apparently a charity has been dropping these pianos around town for passersby to play, which I think is awesome. We heard some beautiful music. And some renditions of chopsticks.

Our last stop was into the Ghiradelli Chocolate Shop, where my aunt and boyfriend each wanted a hot fudge sundae. I couldn’t possibly… my stomach still felt off… ok…

Ghiradelli Sundae

If anything, I think it made me feel better.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 16, 2014 6:47 pm

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  1. My “Peaks” of 2013 – Year in Review | Peaks and Passports

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