We are wrapping up week two of shelter-in-place due to COVID-19, and it just occurred to me that I owe you a blog post! Yes, I do, and what better moment than now?! I just made some hummingbird feed and thought I would share the recipe with you, because, you know, you may have time on your hands too!
But let’s start with a quick flashback.
One of the best discoveries associated with my move from Germany to California was … we have hummingbirds! As a child I always pictured these flying gems on lush tropical islands rather than in my Silicon Valley backyard. But there they were and I fell in love with them in a heartbeat!
I have always had feeders to attract hummingbirds, but over time, I also started to replace the flowers in my backyard with those attracting hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees. That means there are ample food sources available for my flying wildlife now. However, complementing those sources with additional nectar, above all when bloom is low, is a good idea.
When I started feeding hummingbirds, I used to buy the red nectar mix available in many stores. Now I know that the red dye in that stuff is extremely unhealthy for the birds and can even kill them 🙁 Thankfully, it is SUPER easy to make your own.
Recipe for hummingbird nectar
All you need is sugar and water and mix in the following ratio:
-1 part refined white sugar -4 parts of water (for example: 1/2 cup sugar and 2 cups water)
You can add the sugar to boiling water or add it to cold water and bring to boil. It does not matter, as long as the sugar is well dissolved when done. Then let the nectar cool down before filling the feeder.
Please do NOT use anything else but white refined sugar even though it might seem counter-intuitive! The Audubon Society explains that the iron levels in raw sugars are too high and that honey can promote fungal growth; both can be harmful to the birds.
Hummingbird feed (store-bought or home-made) does not last for a long time before fermenting, above all in summer. Therefore, only make as much nectar as your birds consume in a week or so. Also, don’t just refill an empty feeder, always clean it thoroughly first. If there is black stuff coating the inside of the glass, you may need bleach.
By the way, hummingbirds are not necessarily the only birds visiting a feeder. We have a few sweet-toothed chickadees who often have a sip before heading for the sunflower seeds, and orioles love the sweet stuff as well!
What else can you do to attract hummingbirds?
Hummingbirds love, love water features! In summer, ours love to take a shower in our fountain. You also see them hanging out at bubbling pots and sometimes even zipping through lawn sprinklers.
Our most frequent garden visitors here are Anna’s hummingbirds, but every once in a while a very territorial Rufous or Allen’s hummingbird stops by as well.
Did you know?
It is not unusual for me to get buzzed by a hummer when I am out in THEIR territory. But I don’t mind because I did hear once, that in Native American folklore this hovering in front of your face translates to a blessing. I am not sure if it’s true but I sure like to think so. What I do know is that hummingbirds have always played an important role in the life of tribes. They were and are used in crests and on totems, portrayed as healers or fire-bringers, or considered a sign of luck.
One of the highest mountains in the Bay Area is Mount Umunhum, a sacred mountain to many tribes. While the huge square radar building on its top reminds us of cold war times, the name actually means something much more peaceful: resting place of the hummingbirds (in the Ohlone language).
In my last post, we explored beautiful Highway 1 from Point
Lobos to Point Sur. Let’s continue our travel south!
Andrew Molera State Park
After crossing the Little Sur River and passing the Point Sur Lighthouse and Naval Facility, we reach Andrew Molera State Park, a less developed park with great hiking trails and beachcombing opportunities. A seasonal pedestrian bridge allows visitors to cross the Big Sur River. Check the website for more info. Andrew Molera also hosts the Ventana Wildlife Society’s Discovery Center, where you can learn all about the successful reintroduction of the stunning California condor.
Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park
Our next stop, after passing an area brimming with campgrounds and cabins along the Big Sur River, is Big Sur’s most popular park and camping destination, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Hike under the redwoods, take a summer dip in the river, or have a coffee or icecream in front of the fireplace of the Big Sur Lodge (accessible without entrance fee).
If you prefer ocean views over rustic charm, drive on to famous Nepenthe restaurant, which sits high on a cliff and has great views from inside and outside seats. This is also a great stop to purchase locally crafted gifts like Big Sur jade jewelry, books, and photography. The parking lot can get very crowded on summer weekends!
Driving southward, we are now entering condor country. Look out for these awesome vultures with a wingspan of up to 10 ft. soaring high above the mountains or sitting on cliffs on the side of the road. How do you know it is a condor and not a turkey vulture? The upper part of the condor wings around the head is white, the bottom part is black. The pattern is the opposite for turkey vultures. In addition, most of the condors carry radio trackers and numbers for identification. (I will write in more detail about the condors in a future post.)
Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park
As you drive through the awe-inspiring landscape that is Big Sur, you will see little pullouts here and there with a couple cars parked. Most of these are near trailheads, but no area is more crowded on weekends during the tourist season than that for McWay Falls in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. This incredible 80-foot fall is one of just two in California that empty directly onto a beach. The beach is not accessible but the view from the easily-walked Overlook Trail is well worth it!
Limekiln State Park
Compared to this busy park, Limekiln State Park is usually calm and peaceful, even though this little park has much to offer: walk under towering redwoods with the burbling sound of Limekiln Creek in your ears, check out the historic kilns, hike to the cascading Limekiln Falls, or enjoy the rocky beach. What’s not to like?!
We have now traveled approximately 55 miles from Carmel, but who is counting?! The third and final part of this post will soon take us all the way to San Simeon and Cambria.
One of my favorite areas to visit in California is Big Sur, an area that stretches roughly from Carmel to San Simeon and inland into the sparsely populated Santa Lucia Range. It is accessible by famous Highway 1, which was completed in 1937 and is considered by many one of the most scenic drives in the US. In some places, the winding two-lane road is close to the water’s edge and offers easy access to parks and beaches; in others, it precariously hugs the coastal cliffs high above the sea, making it an exhilarating drive with sweeping vistas. When it is open, that is… During the El Niño storms of 1998, the road suffered considerable damage in many places and was closed for months. In 2008, the Basin Complex fire, which raged in Big Sur, forced a closure of the highway for several weeks. In 2011, more unfortunate news arrived from the California Department of Transportation: a 40-foot section of Highway 1 crumbled into the ocean just north of Big Sur after a period of strong rain. In 2017, after heavy rains, Pfeiffer bridge got damaged by a collapsing hillside. And just a few months later, the Mud Creek slide saw 5 million cubic yards of dirt and rocks sliding down the hillside in the largest recorded landslide along the Big Sur Coast, altering the coastline forever and leaving a long stretch of Big Sur and its communities inaccessible.
As I write this blog, the beautiful highway is open and ready for your discovery. One caveat though: there is no cellphone coverage along some stretches of Big Sur, and services are scarce. So whether you are just driving through, come for the art galleries or plan a longer camping or cabin trip, some old-fashioned preparation ahead is recommended.
In that context, please note that this article does not claim to be “the complete guide to Big Sur”, it rather intends to give those who have never traveled there a first taste of “the big south”. There is more to see than I can cover on these pages and Big Sur literature in print or online is better suited to help you prepare your visit in depth.
Tip: The California State Park website (www.parks.ca.gov) is a good starting point for your trip preparations. Choosing “Central Coast” as a region brings up a linked map from which information for every park shown can easily be accessed. Lots of useful information can also be found on the website of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce (www.bigsurcalifornia.org).
I like to start my Big Sur trip with a visit to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve just south of Carmel-by-the-Sea. This beautiful area of forests, headlands, and coves offers much to see and photograph: mossy trees, bizarre erosion-shaped rock formations, green and turquoise waters, tidepools, and abundant wildlife. The incredible underwater habitats offshore make it a great diving area. And during migration, one can see the spouts of whales passing by in the distance. No wonder then that artist Francis McComa called Point Lobos the “greatest meeting of land and water in the world”.
You can easily spend hours here and never make it to Big Sur (ask me how I know…)!
Tip: Point Lobos tends to get crowded late morning. The best time to go is early in the day before the crowds arrive, later in the afternoon, or during the week. People used to park their cars along both sides of the highway to visit but parking is now more regulated than it used to be.
Leaving Point Lobos traveling southwards, I often find
myself in a state of awe as I reflect on the beauty of the coastline, the
engineering efforts that went into building this incredible road and its
historic bridges, and the ever-changing weather that can spoil you with sun and
mild temperatures in one moment and surprise you with thick fog or strong wind
in the next.
A great place to take in the diversity of the landscape and feel the different micro-climates of the jagged Big Sur topography is the little-developed Garrapata State Park. It offers some coastal hikes as well as lesser known trails inland.
During a recent visit, we experienced temperature differences of about 25 degrees between the coastal trails and the more protected trails inland. Soberanes Canyon Trail is an interesting and relatively easy walk which follows Soberanes Creek and gives a taste of the biodiversity present in the inland pockets of this area (from heat-loving cacti to the magnificent Sequoia sempervirens, our fog-depending coastal redwood trees). In springtime, the sound of the burbling creek under blooming willow trees is a refreshing companion during the walk. The canyon trail can be connected with Rocky Ridge Trail to form a more strenuous loop through the park.
Tip: From spring to early summer, the coastline is covered with picturesque wildflowers. Later in the year, poison oak becomes a prominent feature along the coastal trails and long pants are advised.
A nice beach to hang out or see Calla lilies in the wild (do not pick) is Garrapata State Beach a bit further down the road.
Need a little break from driving? A few miles south of Garrapata is Rocky Point Restaurant. This is one of the great places to enjoy a latte or wine with stunning views.
Our next stop traveling south on Highway 1, across Rocky Creek Bridge and past the glimpse of a natural bridge, is the photogenic Bixby Bridge which dates back to 1932.
A pullout before the bridge lets you get up close and personal with the concrete arch construction. If the parking is is overrun by tourists, which these days happens all too often, continue to drive to Hurricane Point just up the hill for a sweeping view featuring coastline and bridge.
Tip: Alternatively, if you have the time, a 4-wheel drive vehicle or a regular vehicle with high clearance, and are in the mood for some adventure, travel up the Old Coast Road, the north end of which is located across from the pullout. This 10-mile rough one-lane dirt road travels inland, bypassing the mouths of the creeks and rivers that are now bridged by the highway. Those who brave it are rewarded with sweeping vistas, rolling hills, and dark redwood groves. Do not attempt this drive in wet conditions!
Continuing our drive, the next striking feature is a dramatic volcanic rock offshore on top of which sits the Point Sur Lighthouse, now a historic park.
Point Sur is currently inaccessible due to bridge repair but tours are scheduled to resume in fall. More info can be found on the Point Sur website.
Some miles further, the road enters a real outdoor paradise: an area brimming with state parks that offer something for everyone.
We will visit this stretch of the road in my next post.
For as long as I can remember, my parents and friends have called me “eagle eye”. When some tiny item dropped into the grass or a car key went missing, I was called to the rescue. When a text had to be proofread before publishing, I was the go-to person. After decades of computer work and its associated sight deterioration, my success rate has admittedly gone down … but that’s OK because it got replaced by something much better. Real eagle eyes!
My very first bald eagle sighting! Ahhh, I can remember it so well. I was visiting Yellowstone National Park with my BF and the beautiful bird sat on top of a dead tree next to the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. Being inseparable from my camera, I took a photo.
And even though my shot was not very good, I was extremely happy to have captured this iconic bird in the wild. A few more encounters followed over the years, one during a drive on the Olympic Peninsula, another during a leaf-peeping trip to Convict Lake in the Eastern Sierra, and one more at the shores of Lake Tahoe.
Special, fleeting moments all, far away from home.
Historical feather facts
Before we visit the present, let’s first have a quick walk down memory lane. America adopted the bald eagle as its national symbol in 1782, a time when the number of nesting birds was estimated at about 100,000. By 1963, the number of nesting pairs had fallen under 500 rendering the bird close to extinction. What happened in those 180 years?
Three major things: -Considerable loss of habitat -Hunting (eagles were shot as perceived livestock killers; unfortunately, this is still happening today) -DDT
after World War II, DDT was hailed as a new pesticide to control mosquitoes and
other insects. I sometimes wonder if it actually was in the rather efficient
mosquito spray my parents used when I was a kid… And as so often happens with
new and shiny (chemical) toys, it takes time to figure out their side-effects.
In the case of DDT, it silently worked itself through the food chain and ended
up in the eagles’ diet (among other places), slowly poisoning the birds and
interfering with their ability to produce eggshells thick enough to remain
intact during incubation. With hardly any offspring to account for, numbers
A combination of key actions – the ban of DDT by the EPA, the enactment of the Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, as well as the protection of nesting sites and successful breeding programs – brought the eagles back from the brink of extinction in one of the best wildlife conservation success stories of our times. (We’ll talk about some of the other stories in future posts.)
As part of the eagle rebound, we now have bald eagles in Silicon Valley. I know! It’s crazy, isn’t it!? I talked to a ranger last year and he said there might be as many as 20 individuals calling the greater Bay Area their home. I can only take his word for that but what I do know is this: I have been spending uncountable hours with one pair over the last years and it’s been an inspiring and at times dramatic experience!
Now, we do have a code of conduct amongst birders and wildlife photographers not to disclose nesting sites of rare or protected species. However, the eagle pair I will tell you about lives a rather public life. It’s been written about in the print media and has made appearances on local news stations. Hence, I feel comfortable writing this post.
The pair built a nest in Milpitas of all places (actually, thinking about it, not too surprising… after all, who can afford real estate anywhere along the Peninsula these days?!) and had their first chick in 2017. The young parents did well and we saw the chick grow from a little grey fuzzball to a beautiful brown-colored juvenile.
No one knew if the eagle presence was going to be a one-off, so imagine the delight when they came back for more!
In 2018, the pair had two chicks, and while that could be considered a success, it meant much more work and drama. On June 18 of that year, one of the eaglets fell out of the nest. Of course, those of us who have siblings think she probably got pushed, but either way, it was not a good situation. Just think cars, dogs, feral cats, raccoons…
The California Department of Fish & Game and the Milpitas Fire Department came with a cherry picker lift to put the eagle back into the nest after a medical exam. But you know how you pick a flat screen TV in a store and think it’ll be great in your house just to realize later it is actually huge?! Well, the crane and the redwood tree were not a match made in heaven. The rescuers reached nowhere near the nest. All they could do was put the eagle on a lower branch. (OK, kidding aside, it truly is a team effort providing eagles in this urban environment of ours with a fighting chance, and California Fish & Game, Milpitas PD, the City of Milpitas, the Vice Mayor, the Fire Dept, the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley, have all been great partners! But I digress.)
So Fish & Game put the eagle on a branch. Or should I say they tried? Our eaglet could not hold on, fell right off, and hurt itself further. The good people of the Lindsey Wildlife Rehabilitation Hospital in Walnut Creek tended to its bruises. They also treated it, no, wait, HER (!) for lead exposure, a possible reason for some of her problems. After a few days, via the California Foundation for Birds of Prey, she – by now we called her “Lucky” – was transferred to the Ventana Wildlife Society, the wonderful organization in charge of reintroducing California Condors into the wild. They continued her care and provided a soft release at their condor recovery release site. I found out from Joe Burnett, Senior Biologist at VWS, that she was hanging out with some impromptu role models, California condors, for a few days but we don’t know where her wings took her afterwards. Hopefully, she is now freely roaming the coastal hills or taking dips in Lake Nacimiento. Meanwhile, eaglet #2 couldn’t care less about all the commotion and grew up nicely, using a sports field for flying and landing practice.
This year, the eagle saga continued with a twist. Eagles mate for life but the 2019 dad didn’t look like our prior, disheveled dad. No. He looked good! Did he visit the spa to regrow all the broken tail feathers when the kids were finally out of the house? Unfortunately, it is more likely that he died and momma eagle accepted a new partner. They fortified the nest and started a new family with two chicks again. On a constant stream of fish, occasionally enhanced by squirrels or ducklings, the two little bald eagles grew quickly. By the end of June, both were testing their wings and hopping around in the nest.
A few days before the 4th of July, the bigger eaglet fledged. He probably thought it was a great idea. That is, until he realized he could not get back into the nest. So yet again, drama ensued. The eaglet spent two days on a small tree, calling for food while the parents tried to coax him back to the nest. On July 5, he landed in the school yard prompting Milpitas police to put up police tape in the hope of keeping people and their dogs away from the grounded bird. Problem is, police tape might keep people out but not necessarily eagles in. And so in the afternoon of that day, he limboed right under that tape and into the streets. Normally, it would not occur to me to walk into the street and direct traffic, but desperate times call for desperate measures! And so I stopped a few cars and made sure that our eaglet safely crossed the street. On a crosswalk no less!
Later that day, he tried to fly again and crash landed in an orange tree. From there he managed to hop onto a roof. Where he got attacked by mockingbirds. And got stuck in one of those whirly roof fans. Maybe that’s just nature. Or maybe karma was coming down hard on him for not sharing his food with his younger sibling. Either way, finally, finally, after five days without food, the eaglet made it back into the nest. Up high in the redwood tree, he performed the eagle rendition of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. First, he ate a fish, but he was still hungry. Then he ate a duckling. Then a seagull. You get the idea!
Who knows what the next days and weeks will bring for our bald eagle family, but this much is sure: growing up as an eagle in an urban environment is not easy!!
I am heartbroken. News about the younger eaglet, 07/13, PM:
Community, It is with great sadness that I share that our eaglet, little Jr., was found dead this afternoon. I have been at the scene working with our Police Department, the Department of Fish and Wildlife Law Enforcement, and our community to ensure there is a full investigation to find out the cause of death. Please, if you heard or saw any activity, please report it to Cal Tip at 1-888-334-2258.
We will continue to work together to find out what happened to our beloved feathered community member. We hope to have more information in the next upcoming days. If you have any questions, please feel free in contacting me.
In community, Karina Dominguez Vice Mayor, City of Milpitas
If you were inspired by this story, consider donating to one of the many groups that take care of injured wildlife. I mentioned several close to my heart in this post but there are many more. Also, even though it might be tempting, please do not fly drones near nests (it disturbs the birds and happens to be illegal), make sure to keep your pets away from birds on the ground, and keep your distance from wildlife. 100 yards is always a good recommendation.
In my last post, I talked about the potential extinction of the amazing Monarch butterfly. Today, we are doing a full 180, visiting an animal that was at the brink of extinction in the 1900s, has since made a great comeback, and can weigh several tons: the northern elephant seal.
The northern elephant seal is the heavyweight amongst our seals. While female seals are on the smaller side, males come in around 5,000 pounds, and some massive alpha bulls have tipped the scale at a whopping 8,000 pounds and a length of 16 feet! And that weight came with a toll. In the 1800s and 1900s, these seals were hunted for their massive layers of blubber, which was used to produce gallons and gallons of oil. It is believed that the population was down to under 50 when the Mexican government followed by the US government finally decided to protect them. Today, their numbers have bounced back to somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 animals.
Elephant seals spend 80% of their life at sea. They only come to land to give birth, breed, or molt. There are several rookeries along the California coast, where these colossal animals can safely be observed. Año Nuevo State Park, located between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay in San Mateo County, is the largest mainland colony. Other significant colonies can be found at Piedras Blancas near San Simeon and Point Reyes National Seashore. Aside from these, I have seen the occasional juvenile male sea elephant in places like Pacific Grove and Pigeon Point.
Seal viewing calendar
Seals can be seen almost year round. However, the best time for action is December to March. This is the time when bulls arrive and fight for domination and the right to build a harem on their stretch of beach. It is incredible and quite graphic to see 4-ton bulls charge at each other and to witness the bloodshed. It is also something you have to be lucky to see. If the opponents are mismatched, the weaker male often concedes before it comes to an actual fight. And because these bulls are so heavy, fighting is an activity more pronounced when it is cold. What you always hear though, up to a mile away, is their loud vocalization snorts.
On the other side of the cuteness spectrum, winter is also the time to see the birth of new pups.
In order to control crowds, make sure animals are not harassed and prevent visitors from doing stupid things like getting between two charging bulls, some special breeding season limitations apply. From December to March, registrations are required to go on the famous guided elephant seal walk at Año Nuevo State Park (although you might be lucky and get an early morning standby spot). Visitors to Point Reyes are required to take the shuttle to the overlook. No registrations are required at Piedras Blancas, where the elevated viewing trail (wheel-chair accessible) provides everyone with safe access.
So, when will you go?
PS: Of course, if you are from Germany and my generation, you can never think of sea elephants and not have this special guy in your mind!
The monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is an easily recognizable and much loved North American insect, and winter is a great time to see it in select eucalyptus or cypress groves along the California coast.
This butterfly species, with its beautiful orange wings, is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration just like birds do. And what a complex migration it is! First, three countries are involved in the migration: Canada, the US, and Mexico. Thankfully, no passports are required in the effort. Monarchs that live on the eastern side of the Rocky Mountains migrate to Mexico; monarchs from the western side migrate to California. What’s even more fascinating is that unlike birds, who repeat their migration flights year after year, butterflies do not live long enough to take advantage of their own “memory”. As a matter of fact, it takes several generations of monarchs to do the round-trip. The migratory generation of monarchs heading south from Canada has the longest life-span with up to 9 months. It covers the whole southern trip, using air currents and thermals to fly 2000-3000 miles to their overwintering locations. I guess that is the reason why these butterflies often look quite disheveled. In early spring, these same butterflies initiate the journey back towards Canada. They become reproductive again, lay their eggs, and start the first of 3 or 4 much shorter-lived generations that are needed to make it all the way back to Canada.
If you live in the Bay Area, you are in luck because there are two overwintering sites relatively close by. In Santa Cruz, the official Monarch grove lies within Natural Bridges State Beach, clusters may also be found at Lighthouse Field State Beach. In Pacific Grove, check out the Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary. Further south, another nice grove is in Pismo Beach. For a complete overview, visit the Xerces Society.
When it is cold or windy, the monarchs huddle in clusters hanging in the trees and look unassumingly like bundles of dry leaves. But when the day warms up, flashes of orange start to hit the clusters as the butterflies pump their wings and start to drop out of the warming congregations.
The first time I visited the grove in Santa Cruz, the overwintering numbers peaked at 120,000 butterflies. A few years ago, the population at that same grove was under 500. According to the Xerces Society, the numbers of the western population have declined by a dizzying 99% since the 1980s!
While there are some natural causes to fluctuation, the most impactful factors of monarch decline are loss of overwintering habitat in Mexico, loss of natural habitat/way stations on route, pesticides, and climate change, which messes with thermals and creates extreme weather conditions. In addition, recent wildfires destroyed several overwintering sites in California.
What can you do?
Create a pollinator-friendly garden. A lot of nurseries can help you find plants that attract butterflies. They often come with the bonus of attracting hummingbirds and bees as well. Monarchs rely on “way stations” and even your backyard can add to the success of their migration. According to the Xerces Society, the plants you choose should ideally bloom in early spring (Feb-Apr). If you live near the coast, find plant that bloom in winter (Nov-Jan). Check out this plant guide for more info by region.
Plant milkweed. The milkweed is the only host plant monarchs lay eggs on and the only plant the larvae will eat. No milkweed = no monarch butterflies. One caveat: make sure the plant site is more than 5 miles inland from overwintering sites. Milkweed does not naturally grow close to the coast north of Santa Barbara. Milkweed too close to overwintering sites can interrupt natural monarch behavior.
Don’t use pesticides such as Roundup and make sure that the plants you buy have not been treated with neonicotinoids!
And lastly, go and enjoy this true wonder of nature.
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.”
Some tips 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.
Photography tips 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.