Whales and Such

Fin Whale from the air.
Fin Whale from the air

The shore was dank with the sour, fishy scent of the sea lions and the retreating tide.  The water was smooth and steel grey.  The fog elevated every sound across the water.  Monterey’s shore was still steeped in the night.  Large gulls flapped slowly into the mist that clung to the masts and hulls of yachts and fishing boats.

The Sea Wolf II, named after the orcas – intrepid hunters of the ocean – was resting beside the slick wooden pier, its engine turning over comfortably.  The skipper had a lined face and deep-set eyes, his skin dark brown and slightly dirty.  A battered baseball cap covered large tufts of grey-white hair.  Our guide, Kate, was a smiling, attractive woman with bronze skin, wispy hair tucked into her cap, and a quietly focused air.  She is not only an expert naturalist/biologist, but she also created some beautiful prints of whales that were for sale in the Monterey Whale Watch’s offices.  (A plug here for  montereybaywhalewatch.com.  The Petchary would really recommend this as the best whale-watching tour in Monterey.  Kate was incredibly nice and knowledgeable).  Kate told us about the whales with teeth, and those that have a kind of filter in their huge mouths, “like a kind of mustache,” called a baleen (similar to the French name for whale, “baleine”).  The more she spoke, the more information she provided in considerable detail – what the whales eat, how they migrate along the coast, and how the deep swell of the ocean scoops all the food (krill) up from the bottom of the Monterey Canyon for the whales and dolphins to feed on.  Krill (those tiny shrimp-like creatures that in turn feed on zoooplankton and phytoplankton – wonderful names) has been bountiful in Monterey Bay this summer, attracting hundreds of whales.

She also had an extraordinary grasp of the details of the many seabirds, large and small, scattered across the waves, fluttering across the water, diving into the waves, flying calmly across our bow.  Kate pointed out an albatross, the first one the Petchary had ever seen.  The albatross soared over the restless waves, his pointed wings shaped like an airplane, curved slightly, perfect.  He tipped gently sideways, banking off into the fog, which gradually engulfed him.  He faded from sight, like an old photograph where only the imprint of a shape remains.

Then there were the dark, smudgy black Sooty Shearwaters, who like the albatross breed in the Hawaiian islands and end up on this side of the vast Pacific Ocean.  One of these birds, in an effort to escape from the wake of our boat, squawked suddenly and regurgitated a slimy mess of squid and other food.

Kate was very successful in giving us a sense, an almost visceral feel of the ocean.  Like the land, it is not a monotone landscape, although we land-dwellers tend to think of it that way.  In one area, Kate pointed to the oily texture of the water, where orcas had killed a sea lion and its fat and blubber lay in the water in viscous globules.  Elsewhere, she pointed out the dirty reddish tinge in the water – the color of krill, whale food.  She also excitedly showed us “whale tracks” – large, smoothed-out patches of water where whales had just passed.

But the fog stayed with us throughout the morning, limited our ability to spot the animals from a distance.  At times it closed in tightly, muffling the sound of the boat engine and smothering our voices.  At times it lifted, so that we could see the beautiful horizon, and stretches of silvery water glittering in the sunlight miles away.  Mostly, the sun was a blur in the sky.  When we pulled out of Monterey, a pure arc of white stretched across the sky and into the sea like a colorless rainbow, reflecting itself on the polished surface of the water.

Orcas are the supreme oceanic predators, hunting in packs like “wolves of the sea.”  Their communication is so sophisticated and complex that it is on a par with humans communicating in their various languages, scientists say.  It was an honor and a tremendous thrill to find a group of them, which we pursued at full speed in the fog, our bow slapping against the waves.  Their sharp fins cut thought the water as they hunted, each individual playing its part.  Like lions, the hunting parties are headed by a female – usually one past her menopause (yes, orcas have menopauses).  We also saw humpback whales – one covered with barnacles that created a mottled pattern on its sides.  We also saw a fin whale, whose elegantly shaped dorsal fin emerged from the waves.  Kate became excited – her love and awe of the creatures was never far beneath the surface for her –  saying it was hard to tell the difference between this species and the sei whale, which is much rarer and has an estimated population of only 55 in California waters.  The name “sei” is Norwegian and it has suffered so much from hunting that its population in 2006 was only one-fifth of what it was before it began to be hunted down by humans – by the Japanese, Norwegians and Icelanders primarily.

The Petchary did not mention Everett.  A young man in his mid-twenties with steady blue eyes and a strong arm to support passengers on and off the boat, Everett was working the whale watch boat as a summer job, confessing he never stayed in one place for too long.  He was born in Hawaii, and like the albatross had moved across the Pacific ocean.  He loves the sea.  Who could not?  As the ship chugged gently back towards the town, past buoys adorned with sea lions and rocks covered in cormorants and pelicans, the Petchary remembered her father’s love of the sea – the tides and the currents, the squalling winds and the sudden calm.  He was never happier than when he was out of sight of the land – alone, in the yellow-painted boat, the “Fancy,” that he built himself in the garage one winter.  It was a single-handed boat, that he knew every inch of.  The little twists and turns of the wind and sea were less predictable, but Daddy loved them even more.  I remember standing on the shore, watching him disappear from view, leaning back comfortably and looking up at the sail.  Happy.

Sometimes the Petchary believes – she knows – he is out there still.

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