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Monterey Bay: Teaming with life

The spectacular marine life of Monterey Bay put on a show on California's Pacific coast

Monterey Bay: Teaming with life
Image: Slater Moore Photography

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I remember it well — Steve Backshall’s excitement at the timely appearance of a blue whale surfacing in Monterey Bay while filming the BBC’s Big Blue Live. Enthralled by the scene, our daughter, Olivia, watched it countless times.

So, on a family trip to California, we had to visit the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to see for ourselves. Created in 1992 and covering 6,094sq miles, the sanctuary was designated for its biological richness, unique habitats, endangered animals and the presence of special cultural relics. It’s nicknamed ‘The Serengeti of the Sea’.

At 6am, we board the Discovery Whale Watch boat. Despite it being the middle of summer, there’s a definite nip in the air and feeling like we could have done with an extra hour in bed, we’re all a bit hesitant. As we chug out of the harbour, the friendly and energetic crew work hard to warm our spirits, if not our extremities, with promises of abundant sightings of humpbacks.

“Whether it’s migration or feeding season, the protected ecosystem of Monterey Bay draws in ocean giants from all over the planet,” enthuses Eric, the on-board marine biologist. “Right now, the huge amounts of krill in the underwater canyon have lured humpbacks to feed in the nutrient-rich waters. You’re in for a treat,” he promises.

Before long we’re cruising out of the harbour, where seals are lying around in their droves on the rocks and the loud barking sound coming from one of them prompts Jude, our youngest, to explode into fits of giggles. “He’s not a morning person either, mum,” he chortles.

Just off shore, among the dense canopy of kelp, we spot impossibly cute sea otters lolling about on the ocean swell. They dive down before suddenly resurfacing to lie on their backs, using their stomach as a dining table. Getting a bit closer we can see one otter preparing his catch (which looks like crab) by smashing it against a rock, strategically placed on his stomach, to open it and prise out the flesh. The smile on Olivia’s face turns to one of concern. “What if they drop their rocks?” she asks. “Don’t worry. They have loose skin and baggy ‘pockets’ underneath their forelimbs where they store extra food, and their tools – the rocks,” assures Eric.

Then, after receiving an excited radio call from base, we motor on out to sea. News has it that there’s some spectacular humpback activity to witness.

We spot a mass of seabirds swarming on the water and Eric promises us that they’re there to mop up the leftovers driven to the surface by a group of whales working cooperatively to gorge on up to two tonnes of krill each, a day.

Then, as if on cue, a loud gasp and several ‘wows’ go up as a powerful spout of water is blown skywards before we spot the first, and then the second… and the third humpback surfacing. It’s hard to know where to look next; we see several fluke up-dives, a couple of dramatic tail slaps and even a spectacular breech. Avidly filming, Olivia counts 19 whales visible in the water at one point.

After almost an hour, it’s time to head back. But, just as the skipper is about to start the engine, we see two whales moving along slowly within inches of the boat. “Chances are they’re sleeping”, informs Eric. “Whales shut down half of their brain so that they’re never completely unconscious but they still get the sleep they need.” Jude is mightily impressed with the slumbering cetaceans, and I’m eternally thankful when Eric adds the fact that humans are nothing like whales, which need to keep half an eye on predators even when sleeping.

Be they awake or asleep, time spent with these marine heavyweights is both extraordinary and exhilarating. And although we haven’t glimpsed the blue whale — the largest mammal to have ever lived on our planet — we don’t mind so much.