You know you've arrived at Fisherman's Wharf by the smell of the ocean, the cry of the gulls, and the barking of the sea lions. Visitors to Monterey can almost always count on wildlife sightings, even when they show up uninvited. Our cameras caught a large sea lion scrambling around on the deck of a boat, before the crew shooed him back into the water. Sea otters floated on their backs near the dock. But catching a glimpse of their larger, more elusive neighbors requires land lovers to leave the wharf and test out their sea legs, aboard ships like the Princess Monterey Whale Watching cruise. My photographer Richard and I took a ride out of Monterey Bay and ended up a couple miles off the coast.
Monterey makes the claim of being the whale watching capital of the world, and the whales didn't disappoint. Gina Thomas, a naturalist with Princess Monterey, was our guide. She pointed in the 11 o'clock direction, "Another grey whale, two grey whales! We're gonna get nice tall tail flukes from the one, and there goes the other one!" Thomas says a whale sighting is almost a sure thing, "We actually have whales here all year long. That's what makes Monterey so special, is that we can see different species throughout the year." Every year 22,000 grey whales make the 12,000 mile migration from Alaska down to Baja California. And they pass through Central California's waters along the way. Come spring, those same grey whales will return with their baby calves. And summer and fall are typically feeding season. So that's when the humpbacks and blue whales arrive. You're more likely to see those breathtaking breeches. Last year's record anchovy population created a feeding frenzy, which might explain we spotted a humpback sticking around long past his normal stay.
Tourists -- many from the Central Valley -- can't get enough. Bob Pugh of Fresno was on his first whale-watching trip, "It's a wonderful experience to see wildlife in a natural environment." Ron Hassett of Fresno raved, "I thought it was great. I mean it's exotic. It's something you wouldn't expect to see so close to home."