Heaven on the bay

Beneath rough-hewn wharf ~ over sandy shallows ~ wee bell jellies hunt

This week kayaking has been great — high pressure has brought clear blue skies, light winds, gently rolling swells and warm daytime temperatures (although the clear nights make for freezing mornings). Clear Day by C.ParsonsAt launch,
the air temperature has been around 40° F (4° C) and the water temperature is 51° F (10.5° C). By mooring, the air temperature is close to 70° F (21° C).

But today was the stand out. With no wind for a week, the water was glassy calm and the views above and below were incredibly clear. Today was a perfect must-paddle day.

Not 10 strokes off Del Monte Beach (I stow my boat at Monterey Bay Kayaks), I came upon a creature that I’ve never seen before. It was so ethereal that I thought at first I was seeing pieces of something drifting, maybe paper or plastic. But after spotting several,
I realized they were real living things. Bell jelly by C.ParsonsFloating past me were tiny, delicate, transparent animals called bell jellies (Polyorchis sp.). I’ve since learned that bell jellies live along our coast in bays and harbors near the bottom where they use their many tentacles to sting and capture crustaceans (shrimps, etc.). How something so delicate-looking can survive in the ocean is amazing.

After the bell jellies came the big show —
a swarm of hundreds, maybe thousands, of sea nettles (Chrysaora sp.). The pulsating large and small golden-brown animals stretched from the end of Wharf 2 (the commercial wharf) across the open mouth of the harbor to around both sides of the breakwater. Sea Nettles by C.ParsonsThey were everywhere, like the jellyfish scene in Finding Nemo. Looking down (this shot is of the water under me), they’re beautiful and graceful. But I’m aware they sting and am happy where I am. As I kept paddling, I noted no sea lion raft that’s typically at the end of the breakwater.
Any wonder why? (For more about Monterey Bay jellies, visit my bestiary.)

Rounding the breakwater and gliding into the kelp beds along Cannery Row was breathtaking — Smooth Ride by C.Parsonsso calm that I just sat for a long time taking in the scene. This was one of those days when I felt that I could kayak the 20 miles (32 km) across the bay to Santa Cruz. It was so placid.

Kelp canopy regulars — seabirds, sea otters and harbor seals — were hardly noticeable today.
It was all about the water.

The ocean’s deep color and soft texture evoked a feeling of calm true to its name — Pacific.

New year’s whales

Ploddingly slow swim ~ migrating female gray whales ~ going to give birth

To end the old year and ring in the new, I went whale-watching with my friend Nora (and a boatload of other people). It was a chilly, beautiful blue-sky day with light winds. This time of year pregnant gray whales migrate (rather rapidly) along our coast heading south to their calving grounds off Baja California. (In the spring the migrators are more leisurely, especially females with new calves.)

Credit: Laura Francis/Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

Credit: Laura Francis/
Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

This annual whale trek is a wonderful excuse for getting out on Monterey Bay. Even though gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) are seldom exciting, it’s fun to welcome them back and I never know what I’ll see given the bay’s topography of nearshore shelf in close proximity to deep canyons. It’s not unusual to spot comingling coastal and pelagic species.

Conditions were good for spotting misty whale blows (exhaled breaths) and it didn’t take long to find several small groups of grays. We joined a cooperative group of 3 or 4 adults (hard to count because they weren’t close together and didn’t all fluke-up — that ahhh tail-up moment whale-watchers love as a whale dives). Our group did, however, follow the typical gray-whale pattern of three or four blows followed by a 5-minute-or-so dive, then another series of blows followed by another dive. We stuck with them for nearly an hour as they trucked south. These grays appeared heftier than ones I’ve seen in the past, maybe due to impending births.

There have been two unusual sightings of gray whales in recent years. In May 2010 a gray whale was spotted twice in the Mediterranean, an odd occurrence because there haven’t been gray whales in the North Atlantic since the 1700s. According to the research paper, this animal was most likely a vagrant from our eastern North Pacific population. The researchers suggested that shrinking Arctic Sea ice due to climate change may allow gray whales to recolonize the Atlantic. Time will tell.

Back in the Pacific, in 2011, a western gray whale with a satellite-monitored radio-tag was tracked swimming from off Russia across the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska to the coast of Oregon until the tag quit.  “Flex,” as he was named, surprised scientists. They didn’t think the western Pacific and eastern Pacific populations mixed. The western Pacific group is listed as endangered; the eastern Pacific group was recently delisted due to its remarkable recovery. The question now: Is there just one Pacific population? The research continues to answer the questions that arose from following Flex.

But back to my whale-watching. To explore more, we broke away from our grays and headed to the edge of the Monterey Canyon. We were soon fortunate to find and get into the middle of a group of hundreds of Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) accompanied by Pacific white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obliquidens). It’s exciting to watch Risso’s all around the boat (knowing that every splash is a dolphin). Grampus12-12We even found ourselves in a nursery group and could easily contrast the large adult dorsal fins with the little calf fins. At one point two separate Risso’s groups came together and the splashes calmed around us as they greeted one another. I could have stayed forever, but time was our enemy and our captain (reluctantly) turned the boat back toward shore.

On the way home we spied a few small harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena). They’re so shy you usually see only splashes, but this threesome stayed on the surface long enough for us to view them, which was a rare treat. And I can’t omit the usual sightings (on our way out and back) of sea lions, sea otters, jellies and scores of birds.

My thanks to Monterey Bay Whale Watch, Nancy Black, Kristin and Isaiah (sorry if misspelled) for a great trip, and to Nora for sharing a great start to the new year.

Scheinin, A.P. et al. (2011). Gray whale ( Eschrichtius robustus) in the Mediterranean Sea: Anomalous event or early sign of climate-driven distribution change? Marine Biodiversity Records, 4, e28 doi:10.1017/S1755267211000042.
Oregon State University, Marine Mammal Institute, Whale Telemetry Group (WTG)
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: Cetaceans (whales, dolphins & porpoises)
Monterey Bay Whale Watch: Marine Mammal Sightings
Educator Guide to The Gray Whale Obstacle Course teaching materials

My introduction to the bay

My fascination with the Monterey area began when I was a teenager and developed in stages over many decades.

I grew up in San Diego. During one summer family-camping vacation, we drove up the California coast. When we reached Big Sur, I was in awe (as most people are). I had never seen forests growing to the ocean’s edge. And, what an ocean — wild and beautiful. I remember sitting at the base of a large redwood just watching, forgetting the time. I later got into a bunch of trouble for being “lost” for so long. But I never forgot.

My introduction to bay waters was about a decade later. I was on a grueling dive-certification trip for the California Department of Fish & Game (now Department of Fish & Wildlife). We started with a dive in the American River, then in Lake Tahoe, and finally in the ocean. The plan was to dive north of Santa Cruz, but we were warned off by Park Rangers because of a people-curious great white shark (as it turns out they’re rather common). We settled on diving in the Santa Cruz Harbor. I remember it being cold, rough and dark. I could barely see the edge of my mask. The only delight was discovering a small Pacific angel shark (or so everyone said based on ID-by-feel) and drinking margaritas in Monterey.

About ten years later (I didn’t realize this was a decadal transition until now) I moved to Monterey permanently to a dream job — working to open the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I was hired temporarily as a writer and spent nine months learning quickly about bay life, then sharing that info via the text accompanying the amazing living exhibits. Everything was exciting and new (in many ways), and we worked hard. The result turned out to be world class, and I decided to stay on after opening. I worked on school curriculum and training the incredible cadre of volunteer guides (docents). I remember the place and people were wonderful.

After a few years I left my job to pursue the challenge of starting a business. Building my business required so much time away from Monterey Bay that I lost my connection. It wasn’t until my sweetheart’s mother passed away that I found my way back to the bay. With my portion of her fun-money gift to each of us, I bought a kayak from Monterey Bay Kayaks. In 2007 I began kayaking the bay regularly. My kayaking is slow and easy, much like the way I was taught to dive. Take your time and enjoy the view. Even though I visit the same places, I see something new on every trip, which I plan to share with you.

Most of my Monterey Bay experiences have been on the south end. Earlier this year I decided to get acquainted with the entire shoreline. As part of a Slow Adventure tour, I walked (mostly alone) the beach from Santa Cruz to Monterey over four days. It was so amazing to experience the shoreline as a single entity rather than  a beach here and there. It gave me a completely new perspective.

Monterey Bay is an incredible place but, like most places, it’s easy to loose touch during busy lives. These blog posts are to help keep me exploring, keep me connected, keep me writing about my home.

Stop and take the time ~
to watch clouds, waves, birds, people ~
it goes so fast