On June 25th, we woke up early and headed off to the Fisherman’s Wharf. We had scheduled a morning whale watching trip. Once we got checked in, we walked around a bit taking pictures of the sea lions sunning themselves all over the docks. When it was time, we got on the boat and found a seat inside. Once the boat was headed out of the harbor, the naturalist and crew members came around introducing themselves and giving the safety lecture. The naturalist didn’t waste time before telling us about the wildlife. Not three minutes into the cruise he pointed out a mother sea otter and her baby floating in the harbor.
She let us get pretty close before she decided she had been the subject of enough photos, flipped over on her belly while hugging her baby to her chest, and dove under the water. At this point I felt like we had gotten our money’s worth, but there was more to see! Out along the breakwater, we saw a cormorant rookery where hundreds of these large black seabirds were raising their young amid lots of sea lions, seals, and pelicans. It appeared to be a very busy place to raise babies!
Once we got out of the harbor, things seemed to slow down a bit. We did not see any animals for a while, but it wasn’t too long before we noticed a huge group of birds sitting on top of the water. A fellow passenger who had a huge telephoto lens wrapped in camouflage tape that seemed to say “I’m a professional nature photographer” explained to us that they were sooty shearwaters. At first I was unimpressed, but he explained that these birds really have an interesting life history! They spend summer off the coast of California, and when it begins to get cool they seek out another summer in the southern hemisphere, off the coast of New Zealand. They spend all of their lives either in the air or floating on the water (or diving for fish, I suppose). They never come on land, and they don’t need to drink freshwater!
I never really got a chance to talk to the photographer again, but I wonder if he has a website or something. I’m sure his pictures are better than mine.
The farther we got from shore, the more we seemed to be enshrouded by fog. I began to worry that we might not have ideal whale watching conditions. How would we see whales when we could only see a short distance? The fog made it difficult to tell how far we had gotten from shore and where exactly we were going. Fortunately, David had thought to bring the GPS and we enjoyed tracking the boat into the bay. Below is a Google maps screenshot that will give you an idea of why Monterey Bay is such a great place to go whale watching:
As you can see from the picture above, Monterey Bay contains some VERY deep water VERY close to shore. Of course, humpback whales don’t normally like to be in shallow water where they might get beached. There is another reason this area is great for whales: the upwelling. Astute environmental science students will remember that the trade winds blow from the northeast in the northern hemisphere and from the southeast in the southern hemisphere. This causes a warm upper layer of water to be pushed to the west in most years (except in an El Niño year). As a result, cool water gets pulled up from the ocean depths on the west coast of the US. This water has nutrients from the ocean sediments that get pulled up with it and holds a great deal of dissolved oxygen due to the cool temperatures (remember, gases dissolve better in cool water than in warm). The ultimate result of this upwelling of nutrient-rich, cool water is that phytoplankton (microscopic plants) and zooplankton (small, free-floating animals) can live in very high concentration here. These are the base of the marine food chain. If the plankton population is healthy, so are the sardine, squid, tuna, krill, dolphin and whale populations! I’ll come back to the squid later. For now, I’ll answer the question you might be asking: did you see any whales? YES!
I may have mentioned before that I went whale watching off the coast of Maine with my parents and siblings when I was 18. At the time I had just graduated from high school and was about to head to Purdue to become a veterinarian. I decided against applying to vet school about a year and a half later for various reasons, but my whale watching experience probably had an impact on my career choice. I remember being so impressed with the naturalist on that boat. He could tell us which whale was which based on the shape and markings of the tail flukes (most adult humpbacks have had run-ins with boat propellers, so they have markings). I was absolutely smitten with biology and ecology. During my senior year of college I remember writing a paper on why I was interested in becoming a biology teacher for my Methods of Teaching Science course. Quite a bit of that paper was about my whale watching experience. Since then, I had not been whale watching and taking David and the boys on a similar trip was at the top of my list of things to do in California. What does this have to do with geology? Maybe nothing. But, look at the whales!
Actually, when I got home (I’m only about a month behind on my blogging at this point – only) there was another little splinter in my mind. Maybe Monterey Bay was the perfect place to consider geology. In fact, the area is really unusual. Not only is there an extremely rich feeding ground because of the upwelling, but the deep water so close to shore gives the humpbacks a place to find lots of krill and tiny fish in an area that they can really dive deeply to come up far and make a big catch. So why does Monterey Bay contain such a deep underwater canyon? Well, after some research, it seems that this is one of those times scientists use that much-hated phrase, “we don’t know”. Mind you, “we don’t know” and “we have no idea” are not the same thing. Scientists do have some good ideas about how the canyon formed. Although it seems like a straight forward question, there is a compounding issue that people in Indiana (like me) might not think about. In California, you must always take into consideration the fact that you are at the edge of a tectonic plate or two. Because the Pacific plate has moved north relative to the North American plate, the canyon is probably not currently adjacent to the river responsible for carving it. Some geologists believe that the canyon was carved when it was an outlet for the Colorado River, before the Gulf of California opened up. Others believe that it was carved when California’s Central Valley was drained and the canyon was near present-day Santa Barbara. The canyon is about a mile deep and it starts about a mile below the surface, so it is astounding to me how deep the water is so close to shore! OK, enough geology, back to the whales!
Humpback whales (like several other species of large whales) are baleen whales. They take huge mouthfuls of water into an expandable pouch in their throats, then push the water out through their baleen to filter the krill and small fish from the water. What is baleen? Baleen is made of keratin, and similar to fingernails. Whales have many rows of these baleen plates along their mouths that allow them to strain out their tiny prey. Here is Kieran with a piece of baleen that’s longer than he is tall. David and Evan are looking at pictures and listening to the naturalist explain how humpbacks use the baleen. In this video, Kieran narrates and makes up a joke. Ah six year-olds!
It is pretty astounding that the largest animals on the planet hunt some of the smallest animals as their prey! Of course, humpback whales are not the only ones that were enjoying the seafood buffet that day. The cute little (comparatively) sea lions looked like they were playing, but I am sure they would take offense to such a suggestion. I’m sure they were feeding just like the whales were.
We also saw about 100 Risso’s dolphins. They are not a species I was familiar with, and I found them interesting. These guys were really fast. Every time I tried to take a picture, I ended up with their left over splashes. I did get a few shots that came out OK.
These guys really don’t hold still for the camera. Here’s another one:
And here’s another one:
Not all cetaceans use baleen to catch their meals. The other whales are called “toothed whales”. This group includes orcas and dolphins. Risso’s dolphins eat a variety of fish, but they prefer to eat squid. Their coloring is usually grey with white scarring. These scars come from the hooks on the ends of the tentacles of their prey and from bites from other Risso’s dolphins. They actually start life uniformly grey and their skin becomes whiter as they age and accumulate scars. I almost forgot! David caught some good video of these guys! Check it out!
Not long after seeing these guys, we found another pod of humpbacks. Our naturalist counted seven as our total for the trip.
How about one more for good measure?
As we came back to the wharf, the sky began to clear. I’m certainly no travel expert, but I might advise someone going whale watching in Monterey Bay to consider an afternoon tour, rather than a morning one to avoid the fog. Of course, that day’s weather may not be the normal weather pattern. As we returned, we were welcomed back by our old friends, the sea lions.
After we left the boat we checked out the wharf which has lots of seafood restaurants and trinket shops. We tried fresh raw oysters, which was a first for all of us. Kieran was the only one who didn’t approve. Then we ran across a few new arrivals to the wharf.
Our afternoon was spent at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but I think that’s going to require another post.