Whale Watching at Monterey Bay

Drawn by news of anchovies and humpback whales, we went whale watching this week at Moss Landing, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. The 4-hour whale watching cruise was smooth. We saw a wide range of behaviors from humpback whales, while watching sea lions and sea birds feeding.

Moss Landing, shown by the red marker below, is at the mouth of the Salinas River. Evidently, sand and other sediment from the river have cut a deep canyon into the offshore shelf. This underwater canyon enables humpback whales to swim in deep water while following anchovies close to shore. Starting from the beginning of the canyon enabled our boat to reach deep water a mile or two from the dock, allowing more time for whale watching.

Monterey Bay Map
Underwater Canyon starts at Moss Landing

Humpback whales are mammals, so they breathe air. When they surface, they exhale a plume of vapor before inhaling. Here are two whales, one exhaling a plume and the one on the right curving its back to prepare to dive. The curved back of the diving whale looks like a humpback; hence the name.

whale spout
whale spout

We read about big waves from Hurricane Maria, but the sea was calm. Here’s a jellyfish.


Humpback whales have pectoral fins up to 15 feet long. Below a humpback is slapping the water with its pectoral fin.

pectoral slap
pectoral slap (click to enlarge)

The humpback on the left is spy hopping, sticking its head out of the water to look around.

spy-hopping humpback
spy-hopping humpback

This humpback is starting to dive. Notice the white underside and the barnacles on the leading edge of the tail. Sunlight enters the ocean from above, so the light-colored underside and the dark top are a form of camouflage, making the whale harder to spot.

humpback tail
humpback tail (click to enlarge)

Humpbacks and sea lions both feast on anchovies, so you frequently see them together. Two humpbacks are behind the sea lions: the diving humpback and a second one cruising between the diving whale and the sea lions.

humpbacks whales and sea lions
humpbacks whales and sea lions (click to enlarge)

These sea lions are porpoising — leaping out of the water like porpoises. Air has less drag than water, so porpoising is faster than swimming.

porpoising sea lions
porpoising sea lions

People in kayaks paddle a mile or two offshore to look at the sea life. And the sea life likes to look back at the kayakers. Two whales are approaching these kayaks. The white tail on the left is part of a whale lying on its side, with the body next to the kayaks. The black hump in the center is a diving humpback.

kayakers and whales
kayakers and whales


Sea lions also came to look at the kayakers.

sea lions looking at kayakers
sea lions looking at kayakers (click to enlarge)

Birds also eat fish. This juvenile double-crested cormorant has a lighter color than an adult. The cormorant dives from the surface for fish.; the pelican dives while flying.

double-crested cormorant
double-crested cormorant

Humpback whales are more active than other whales. The next three photos shot in burst mode show a humpback breaching, thrusting most of its body out of the water while spinning.

humpback whale breach
humpback whale breach 1/3 (click to enlarge)
humpback whale breach
humpback whale breach 2/3 (click to enlarge)
humpback whale breach
humpback whale breach 3/3 (click to enlarge)

This humpback is slapping its tail against the surface of the water. See the trail of water left by the tail.

tail slap
tail slap(click to enlarge)

Below, three humpbacks are lunge feeding — diving, then simultaneously swimming up through a school of fish so that fewer fish can escape their jaws. The whale on the right has the (smooth) top of its head toward us. Two are on the left: the one in back has its mouth open a bit; the one in front is lower, with the bottom of its mouth toward us. The creases on the bottom of the humpback’s mouth allow the mouth to expand and take it more water and fish during its lunge. The whale then pushes the water through its baleen to sift the fish from the water.

three humpbacks lunge feeding
three humpbacks lunge feeding (click to expand)

Below two humpback are lunge feeding and have their mouths open, so that we can see the baleen of both whales. See from the side, the whale on the left is swollen with all the water taken in during its lunge. Its baleen is hanging down so trap fish as the whale gets ready to strain the fish from the water it took in. The humpback on the right still has its mouth open wide, showing the pink roof of its mouth and retracted baleen.

lunge feeding with mouth open
lunge feeding with mouth open (click to enlarge)

You don’t know when and where the whale will lunge out of the water. Birds and sea lions feed on schooling anchovies, so that’s an indicator. See all the birds around the lunging whales. A brown pelican is floating just behind the whales. The small dark birds are common murres. Notice that these lunge-feeding whales are close to the shore.

We saw more humpback whale behaviors here than we saw in Maui, where the whales are fasting during the winter calving and mating season. In the summer humpbacks are eating and more active.

Sanctuary Cruise, the whale watching company we used, did an excellent job. Our cruise was sold out, but passengers had enough space to move the side of the boat where you can see the whales. Other boats didn’t have enough space for everyone to move to one side of the boat. Second, our boat stayed out longer than advertised to see the lunge-feeding whales. We would have missed the last two photos if the boat had returned on schedule.

Finally, the captain takes pictures too, so he cares about photo opportunities, and he provided a valuable tip. He suggested using a shutter speed of 1/800 to 1/1000 of a second, and that helped. I was using a 1/400 second shutter speed with the 100-400 mm lens — okay for hand-holding on land, but on a rocking boat, more shots with the faster shutter speed were sharp. Thinking about this now, his suggestion makes sense, but I wouldn’t have figured this out on the boat.

Humpbacks were close to extinction when commercial whaling was banned in 1986. Their numbers are increasing, and we saw many more humpbacks this year than on a previous Monterey Bay whale watching trip in August 2012.

We had a great time on this whale watching cruise. The weather was wonderful: a calm, bright day. Humpbacks leap from the water more than other whales, so they’re more fun to watch. These feeding humpbacks are much more active than the fasting humpbacks we saw in Maui in winter. During the winter calving season, you see mother and calf pairs. Mothers and calves are calm, so you have a longer contact time with whales, but they don’t leap and dive much. In the summer, humpbacks are feeding, so you see lunge feeding and more breaching. The sea lions, birds, kayakers, and their interactions were interesting when whales weren’t close by.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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