Growing up in Germany, I never thought I would ever see a whale. Let me rephrase that: I thought I would never see a live whale, because one day a huge semi came to town and my school class went to see it. It was set up like a mobile classroom and inside was, you guessed it, a whale. I actually have no recollection if it was some sort of preserved specimen or a realistic recreation, but whatever it was, it did leave a big impression on this 8 year old. 10 or so years later in California a friend of mine gave me a whale watching trip out of Half Moon Bay as a birthday gift. The sea was pretty choppy that day and lots of people got sick. As for whales, maybe they were out there but we sure never shared the same wave trough… Fast forward to the present Monterey Bay. This beautiful part of the Pacific Ocean, which is hiding a magnificent underwater canyon rivaling the Grand Canyon, is a testament to the incredible success conservation work can have. Wildlife is plentiful in our marine sanctuaries and many species close to extinction have bounced back – so much so that even the BBC came over here a few years ago to document the bounty in a show called “Big Blue Live.”
But back to the whales. There are two big migration events that are easy to witness from many places along the California coast: the southern migration to Baja in winter and the northern migration in spring, when a lot of gray whale mothers embark on the long and dangerous northbound trip with their calves. April and May are the best months to see the grays in the Monterey Bay. They also offer the best chance to see Orcas, which come to the area to hunt those calves. In summer, the bay is teeming with humpbacks, and those who are lucky might see the largest living animal on the planet … a blue whale. Due to abundant food, we even know of a few humpback whales who gave up on the idea of migration altogether, so that there now is a chance to see whales throughout the year.
Humpbacks are the acrobats of the whale family and my favorite photography subject out there. If you are super lucky, you might encounter a breacher! That is a whale which likes to throw its massive body out of the water for a very splashy show. Or you might witness a whale “tail lopping” away for no apparent reason. Finally, it is always a spectacle to watch a group of whales “lunge feeding.”
How can YOU see the whales? My favorite tour company is Sanctuary Cruises out of the Moss Landing harbor. I like the fact that they were the first outfit in the bay to run on bio-diesel, and they always have a marine biologist on board. They are also very active on Facebook. I highly recommend checking out their page; the photos and videos are amazing. If you want to go on the weekend, booking a few days ahead of time is a good idea. There are also several companies leaving from Monterey; those are generally better for walk-ins.
I have been out on whale watching trips 15 times or so. I usually check the marine forecast to see what kind of swells are expected. My favorite trips are in the morning or evening since the sea is generally calmer. However, fog can be a problem in summer. I usually make sure to just have a light meal on the day of the trip and the night before. On the boat, the stern or back is the smoother ride but I like to stand on the side, just past the spray zone and away from the smell of diesel fumes. That does it for me, however, if you are prone to sea sickness, you might be better off taking something like non-drowsy Dramamine; on Sanctuary Cruises, you can also rent motion relief bracelets. What I will never understand is people munching on Doritos or the like when out at sea… Other things to consider: wear sturdy non-slip shoes; apply sunscreen; if you wear a hat, make sure it has a tight fit (I have seen many fly away); bring layers for the wind chill. I always take a fleece jacket and some kind of shell on board; on choppy days, I wear rain pants to protect myself from the spray.
A lot of people come back from whale watching trips with a memory card full of blurry pictures. That happens when your shutter speed does not factor in the reality that both boat and wildlife move. A lot! When I am on the water, I usually switch from Manual mode to Shutter Priority mode. Shutter Priority is a semi-automatic mode where the photographer chooses the speed and the camera chooses the aperture or depth of field. My preferred setting is around 1/2000. If your camera has an Auto-ISO feature, it is a good idea to enable it so you don’t have to worry about changing light conditions. I personally adjust the ISO manually as needed.
Last but not least, Mother Nature does not come with any guarantees. You might go on a trip and not see any whales. But a day on the water is hardly ever a wasted day. Just keep your eyes peeled and you may see dolphins, sea otters, sea lions, harbor seals, sharks, sunfish, turtles, and a wide gamut of sea birds.
Ahoi, and have fun!