Look! A Whale!

With my feet planted squarely on the deck and both hands firmly gripping the stainless steel rail, I look out at the rolling waves with a mix of giddy anticipation and nervous dread. I’ve had a head cold for the past week which has made just getting out of bed a stomach-lurching activity, so this might not have been the best day to pick for a two-hour whale-watching cruise.

It is a sunny morning in early October and we have just departed the jetty at Moss Landing in Monterey Bay, California. Uncharacteristically, I eschewed the free donuts in the ticket office and only sipped a bit of coffee before we set out. In my early teens, my Girl Scout troop visited Catalina Island and the seasickness that I experienced on the ferry ride both out and back left a strong impression on me. Passing up donuts is much better than tossing up donuts, in my view.

Because of the aforementioned Scout trip, I have pretty low expectations when it comes to whales. We were apparently the only boat that summer that had zero sightings. The company consoled us with free tickets if we wanted to try again another day – small comfort when you’re from another state and have planned the trip for more than a year. Just imagine how many boxes of cookies those tickets represented. This trip will feel like a success if I see even one spout on the horizon.

The captain informs us that the waves are choppier just outside the breakwaters and will be smoother as we get farther out. With the cool breeze on my and the reassuring solidity of the rail in my fists, I start to relax and enjoy the rolling motion of the boat.

I only half listen to the onboard expert as he shares factoids about whales and the local area. In my head I’m comparing how it feels in real life to be standing on a boat keeping a sharp eye out for whales to the descriptions I once read in Moby Dick. What a shameful part of human history, I muse, yet how romantic at the same time. The on-board expert, who is a marine biology graduate student at the nearby university never brings up Melville, though I suspect Melville knew easily as much about whales as this guy.

There! Something is spotted in the distance. There is a large mass of something churning up the surface of the water. Seagulls circle overhead. Surely this is an indication of big bait ball of anchovies, and a sign of whales nearby?

It is a sign, but not the whale. There are what looks like fifty sea lions swimming close together in what we are informed is a “raft.” I watch the seagulls overhead, tracing the paths of several that break away and head in another direction.

Over in the distance there is the puff of tell-tale spray, followed by a rolling wheel of dark gray skin that has a big hump. The boat lumbers on over in the whale’s direction. It goes below a wave then repeats its roll. Then we get a good look at a big curve of whale back and its tail flukes come out of the water and slide back down in as the whale dives down to the depths. Everyone on board cheers and claps. I stare at the glossy patch of smooth water left behind and marvel how it really does resemble a footprint, just as Melville described.

To say that we had a lucky trip doesn’t really do it justice. Our boat’s experience could easily have been the poster-child for whale watching tours. There were probably about 4 whales in the area which we caught sightings of easily over a dozen times. There was a sea lion that for some unknown reason decided to put on a show for us and circled the boat, leaping all the way out of the water and then flipping over and diving down again and again. There were pelicans majestically cruising by in perfect formations of four or five.

The best moment of all was when we were casually gazing out across the waves from the starboard side and all of a sudden a whale comes bounding up out of the water, twists so that his striped belly is fully displayed to us, then comes crashing down on his side in a giant flop.

Do I have a picture of this? No. I left my camera in my pocket for most of the tour, and was happy to just enjoy being in the present moment.

This turned out to have been the right choice. When we got back to the hotel and I was looking through the shots I did take, I realized something very frustrating about whales: it’s not easy to get good pictures of them – at least, not with camera phones. Here is the best shot I managed to get:

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Here’s the dancing sea lion. I left it in burst mode, figuring that something would come out great. But out of hundreds of frames, this was about the best I got.

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So, I’m probably never going to be much of a nature photographer, or even an Instagram celebrity.  But, I don’t care. All I can say is, you had to be there.