Monterey Bay Classic Pelagic

The first time I remember going out on a boat on Monterey Bay I was in high school. That year (1988, I think), numbers of blue whales were being attracted by krill into the nutrient-rich bay.

My dad and I took a whale watch boat out of Monterey’s Old Fisherman’s Wharf and it was the first time I set eyes on the world’s largest animal. I was able to take a few pictures of the whale’s blue-gray mass. Later, I told my biology teacher that I had seen blue whales in Monterey Bay. He didn’t believe me, but I showed him pictures to prove it!

In the ensuring 30 years, I have been on a few Monterey Bay pelagic birding and whale trips. But it had been a while so, when I saw that Alvaro’s Adventures was taking a trip to the bountiful Monterey Bay, I signed up.

I love Monterey because of it’s place in California’s history. The American flag was first raised in Monterey. Our state constitution was written (in English and Spanish) at Colton Hall, a short walk from Monterey Wharf.

What I don’t love about Monterey is it’s wharf. This is full of tourist junk shops and cheesy nautical themed restaurants but it’s saving grace is to be found at the end of the wharf: the companies that lead nature tours (mainly for whales) out into the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.

The orca sign at the dock to Monterey Bay Whale Watch and our masked-leader below, Alvaro. I had seen a pod of orca in the bay a few years ago. I wouldn’t mind seeing the world’s largest dolphin again.

I found myself here at a quarter to seven at a wharf that was slowly coming to life, which would be a jarring contrast on our return later that afternoon when hordes filled the wharf, having not got the note about social distancing.

A few pelagic birders were milling about. You could always tell them apart, they had on birding hats, often displaying some national or international birding destination. They usually had optics around their neck and were nibbling on ginger snaps or cookies and thumbing through bird guides. Some where even checking out the local western gulls and pelicans.

Today our boat was manned (this doesn’t sound right) by two women. She was a large boat, the 70 foot Sea Wolf II and was made, not for fishing, but whale watching, a perfect vessel for pelagic birding! Of course the real Sea Wolf of the seas is the orca aka the killer whale.

There was plenty of leg room on the Sea Wolf II. The red tape on the rail was placed six feet apart to encourage social distancing. One of these lines of perspective is straight. My money is on the horizon. The Sea Wolf had lots of places to stand or sit with clear views of Big Blue.

We boarded and before long where heading out into Monterey Bay. The swells were high and I enjoyed riding the rhythms of the sea like a nautical bucking bronco, a raucous sea horse! A few members of birders joined the Feeding-the Fish Club. Luckily, touch wood, I have never been a member of this club.

The reason Monterey Bay is a legendary location for pelagic life is the marine canyon, the Monterey Submarine Canyon, that bisects the bay. This canyon starts just to the west of Moss Landing. The canyon, at certain places, is a mile in depth and is the deepest submarine canyon on the west coast; a Grand Canyon of the Pacific. This canyon produces nutrient-ruch waters that attracts cetaceans (from blue whales to orca) and pelagic birds. This also means that you do not have to travel too far out to see pelagic species.

Today we headed south to search the waters off the coast of Big Sur. I told Alvaro that I would be checking the skies for California condor! (there is a nerdy bird joke in there.) The pelagic birding in the bay had not been as prolific in recent weeks, possibly because of water temps, so Alvaro directed the crew of the Sea Wolf to head south. And it turned out to be a good decision.

Within 30 minutes of leaving port, we had our first pelagic species, a lone sooty shearwater. This trip was dominated by the presence of pink-footed shearwaters. Alvaro noted that “weirdo” shearwaters (aka rare) associate with pink-footed and not sooty shearwaters. I could only hope for a Manx!

A little further out, we were upon a pod of Risso’s dolphins. These gray dolphins have dorsal fins that resemble female orcas. Our captain called attention to one individual Risso’s, an albino, named by whale watchers as “Casper”.

Risso’s dolphin. These dolphin don’t seem to enjoy bowriding like the gregarious Pacific white-sided dolphin. But a great dolphin to see nonetheless.

Further south we encountered sweet spots with many shearwaters, a smattering of ashy storm-petrels, and some south polar skuas. One skua was being chased by a Heerman’s gull, oh how the tables had turned. In this general direction we saw our first, of about ten, black-footed albatross. We added two species of jaegers to our list.

I spent most of my time in the stern of the boat. It it usually is less crowded, less wet, and less turbulent in the back. Once we headed back north again, I migrated to the bow of the Sea Wolf. Here is was important to keep at least three points of balance and attempt to hold binoculars to your eyes. At times, I wore my binos like a dense necklace and scanned the waters with the naked eye. This is a wide angle lens approach to pelagic birding. This approach has payoffs.

I spotted a chocolaty shearwater crossing our bow from right to left. “Shearwater”, I called out. Alvaro, who was standing to my left, got bins on it and proclaimed, “Flesh-footed!” It really does pay off to stand next to someone who knows more than you do. It always makes you look better. This was the only flesh-footed shearwater we saw on the trip and only the second one I had ever seen.

Something similar happened a dozen miles later when I spotted a grouping of four birds. It looked like two phalaropes bookended by two California gulls. One of the spotters identified the two birds as red phalaropes. The seas, swells, and light can play tricks on the birder, even the most seasoned pelagic birder. As we came closer the birds were not phalaropes but the smaller Napoleon’s gull. They showed their dark bills and ear muffs. These small gulls were a pleasant pelagic surprise. I have never seen this gull in open ocean but on terra firma.

It was surprising to see a few passerines so far out at sea. The closest these birds might come to water was a bird bath. An American pipit strafed the boat and then later a golden-crowned sparrow crossed our stern. We also spotted an unidentified sparrow that was laboring, inches above the waters. It was flying towards us. Some passerines hitch rides back to port but this sparrow did not look long for this world. It most likely had gotten lost flying over the bay and this shortcut can prove deadly. We soon lost sight of the sparrow, it disappear behind the swells.

We soon made a course to the west as we headed back to port. Here we saw more inshore species like common murre, Brandt’s cormorant, and brown pelican. The latter species it’s truly one the of the iconic inshore west-coast species. Brought close to extinction by the pesticide DDT, they now flourish in the Pacific. A line of pelicans approached from our port side. Such a common species here, now, but is there no other bird in flight, over the seas that is more soothing to soul and meditative, than a line brown pelicans?

To me, there never has been, nor will there ever be a species that says “Monterey Bay” than the brown pelican.

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