winter approaches in Monterey Bay, humpback whales are feasting on the
still abundant schools of anchovies as they finish their long feeding
season off the California coast. Monterey Bay is a prime feeding area
for them and we find the humpbacks relatively close to shore often near
the deep and productive Monterey Submarine Canyon. This is their last
chance to take advantage of food and fatten up before leaving for their
winter breeding areas off mainland Mexico and central America where they
will fast for several months while mating and giving birth in warm waters.
recent years, some humpbacks probably younger whales have even stayed
through the winter off our coast, as they are too young for mating. As
the population of humpbacks increases we expect this trend to continue.
Humpback whales are still endangered with a population of close to 1,200
whales that feed off California and breed off Mexico. Historically, before
the whalers hunted humpback whales, Monterey Bay had an abundance of humpbacks
and records indicated they were hunted here year-round. As their population
increases each year due to full protection, they soon may be taken off
the endangered species similar to the gray whale, the only whale that
has fully recovered from the intense hunting of the 1800's and early 1900's.
whales are a true success story with a population close to 23,000. They
pass by Monterey Bay on their migration from their feeding areas in the
Bering Sea and north to their breeding areas in the lagoons off the west
coast of Baja California. Gray whales have one of the longest migrations
of any whale, traveling close to 12,000 miles roundtrip. Since they don't
all leave their feeding areas at the same time, traveling in pods of 1
to 12 whales spread out over a few months, in Monterey Bay we have the
opportunity to view them from our whale watching vessels as they migrate
close to shore.
Gray whales migrate closer to shore in Monterey Bay compared to most places
on their long journey due to the submarine canyon that is unique to Monterey
Bay. The gray whales prefer to migrate in relatively shallow water so
as they come from the north, the whales must cross the deep canyon then
head toward Pt. Pinos (a point just west of Monterey), to re-enter shallow
waters inside of the canyon. Therefore the gray whales are more concentrated
and easier to find off Monterey than other places along the coast where
they may spread out up to 20 miles offshore compared to just a mile or
so from shore in Monterey Bay.
We start seeing the first pods passing by during mid-December with a peak
during January as they travel south and we continue to see southbound
whales into mid-February, at which time the first grays pass by on their
way north with a majority passing through on their northbound migration
during March. The adult whales are the first to leave their breeding lagoons
while the mothers with new calves stay in Mexico longer to nurse their
calves and fatten them up for the long migration to Alaska. When the mothers
and calves pass Monterey Bay during a second phase of the gray whale migration
during April and May, killer whales, their natural predator, are often
patrolling Monterey Bay's canyon in search of the calves.
Bay is one of the few places where these amazing natural predation events
can be witnessed. As the number of gray whale calves born each year has
increased, more killer whales have learned that the Bay is a prime area
to hunt them. Normally mother and calf gray whales travel very close to
shore often just outside the surf line and kelp beds but when they must
venture across the canyon they become more vulnerable to killer whales.
The killer whales have an advantage if they can find the gray whales over
the deep canyon because it takes several hours for a group of 5 to 20
killer whales to overtake a gray whale calf. If the gray whales can make
it to shallow water near shore, they can escape the killer whales by hiding
near rocks or staying in less than 20' of water. Every year, we do witness
such attacks, some successful, providing a much needed food source for
the killer whales, and some where the gray whales are able to escape near
addition to the yearly winter and spring migration of the gray whale,
an abundance of dolphins are also frequently encountered during the winter.
The dolphins also feed in Monterey Bay and over the canyon on fish and
squid year-round and unlike the baleen whales (gray, humpback, blue whales)
they do not undergo a migration. The waters are actually warmer off our
coast during the winter, due to a predominance of a southern current and
species of dolphins found in southern California, mainly the long-beaked
common dolphins, are often sighted in the Bay. We also see Risso's dolphins,
Pacific white-sided dolphins and northern right whale dolphins in the
winter sometimes in groups of several thousand.
The diversity of marine life in Monterey Bay is tremendous and has been
compared to the plains of Africa as far as the abundance of large mammals.
Our whale watching trips run daily from Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey
to view these animals. Trips to see gray whales last about 3 hours and
are led by marine biologists offering a fun and educational trip for all
ages. For reservations call Monterey Bay Whale Watch at 831-375-4658 or
go to our secure online
reservation form on our web site where we post daily sightings at