Clellie Lynch: Up close with the giants of the sea



The sunlight streams through the crack in the curtains at the motel. I hop out of bed and look outside. There’s not a wisp of morning fog, a perfect day for whale watching on Monterey Bay. The drive west meanders though busy strawberry fields and sun-drenched vineyards, past ritzy, pristine neighborhoods of Spanish-style mansions complete with red-tiled roofs, quite different from the homey mixed styles and eras of Salinas where wooden Victorians squat side by side with ranch houses.

The wharf is much like any other in a coastal tourist town, with fish restaurants and taverns, some with pirate themes, others decorated with nets, crabs and retired fishing floats. Need a T-shirt or sand dollar earrings? This is the place. An extensive fishing fleet is docked near by. Two or three trawlers come to harbor with their nets carefully rolled up. Perhaps the haul is below deck. Sealions in an amorphous pile bark and lie about on their designated platform while pelicans land on railings hoping for handouts, but only get their picture taken.


A bit before 10 the boat starts loading. Couples and families wander over to claim seats. We amble down along the dock and, remembering boatburns, slather on the sunblock and eventually settle in near the stern. A little before 10, two sunburnt, white-haired, craggy-looking men board. Ah, Ahab and his mate have arrived!

A late arriving couple is helped in. Time to start your engines -- but wait, à la "Madeline’’ come girls two by two. Just when we though the boat was full, we are joined by 19 more -- 16 young Girl Scouts campers and their leaders.

In a few moments, everyone is sorted out and we are bounding past the mouth of the harbor, jetties graced with hundreds of small, dark Brandt’s cormorants. As we rush to the center of the bay across from Moss Landing, the boat roars at a speed too fast for birding, though I do see a few stiff-winged, sooty shearwaters glide over the swells joined now and again by gulls, terns and pelicans fleeing the sound of the motor. Every so often, a pair of pigeon guillemots flash wing white as they fly over the wake.

After an hour, the boat slows down and the captain starts his spiel about the whales. Off to the left, he announces. A misty spray from a blowhole billows up, then another and another. Three humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in a row swim along, the dorsal fin prominent as they arc up and down. The captain brings the boat closer. One mighty giant takes a big dive flashing his tail, the giant T-shape swallowed by the water as he descends and disappears.

The captain continues describing the habits of these krill-swilling whales and points out that they "hang out’’ with sealions. Sure enough, a pod of pals cavort up and down around the whales. At one point, six whales blow off a little, fishy-smelling mist and flip their tails as cameras click. The boat sways in the swells. The closer we are, the more the audience acts as if we are at fireworks, oohs and aahs abounding. As whales emerge in various places, passengers rush from side to side, except for those bored 12-year old scouts who remain inside the cabin reading a good book.

At one point, a synchronous shout rises from the boat as one giant of the sea launches itself completely out of the water and flings itself back down creating an absolutely enormous splash. As the Californians really do say, "Totally awesome!" Click, click, click go the cameras. Humpbacks frolic and cavort around us if 30-ton creatures could be said to frolic and cavort. Another one breaches nearby. A spectacular sight!

Being on a relatively small boat, the captain is able to follow the herd. How could those 19th-century whalers ever have spent hours and hours in a motorless boat chasing down angry and injured whales with mere harpoons? One nearby, mighty tail flip of a single whale must have sent an oared, Boston whaler spinning helter-skelter amid the rolling waves. Queequeegs, we are not! After an hour, we turn south toward port.

The wind has picked up considerably and the swells have grown. Dylan and I are at the back of the boat and it feels as if we are on an enormous surfboard riding one wave after another. Danny is seated until the sea spray accumulates on the roof of the cabin and pours down onto his seat. He joins our mini surf club. Many people are inside now and alas -- a few girl scouts lost their cookies!


Back at the docks, restaurants and shops are crowded, so we make our way to the car. I hear a weird noise, neither a bird screech, nor an animal scream. I look around and then up. A bird with four wings is fluttering, struggling to fly. Quickly I put the binoculars up. Definitely four wings!

Two sharp-pointed wings, another pair a bit rounded. A peregrine falcon has a pigeon in his talons and is trying to kill it on the wing. The joined pair circles above us, drops down a bit and I see the falcon twitch -- maybe to get a better grip. The hungry predator again rises up and now circles as it struggles over the swaying white masts of the docked sailboats. Around and around they go. A first -- seeing a hawk trying to quiet and kill his victim while trying gamely to stay aloft!

At the end of the day, there’s time for a wine tasting, this time at the Ventana vineyards where none of the seven different wines served impressed. We did learn, though, that if the California drought continues, the water table carries enough to keep the vineyards viable for only another year and a half! Would that we were meteorologist magicians and were able to send our recent rainstorms to the parched West Coast!

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.


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