In the vast expanse that is the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (449 square miles wide and twice as deep as the Grand Canyon), sea lions cluster atop organic debris and go in search of feeding whales. When this haphazard-looking flotilla finds them, their buffet is officially open. As the whales feast on anchovies and sardines, stirring up the water, the sea lions grab their share. Seabirds soon arrive to join the party.
All this goes on as we wrestle with the Delta variant, rail about politics, weep over 100-plus fires burning in the West and watch in horror as floods and heat waves wreak havoc elsewhere. Whales have been on the planet for 50 million years, still surviving even though we’ve attempted to slaughter every last one of them, we’ve neglected to reduce ocean acidification caused by the climate crisis and we continue to dump toxic materials in the sea.
So far, Whale Nation endures.
In celebration of that — and of the 40th anniversary of my first whale-watch trip — I headed for Monterey Bay from my home in San Francisco to board a boat, my first big adventure out since March 2020.
Humpback whales spouted, breached and showed off their beautiful 10-foot-wide scalloped tails as they dived. We also saw a mola mola (ocean sunfish), plenty of jellies, seabirds galore and dozens of those clever sea lions. The sun sparkled on the water as passengers, masked to protect us from one another, oohed and aahed at nature’s display, even as we lamented that the whales cavorted closer to another boat than ours.
The evening before the whale watch, a friend and I attended a different kind of dinner party. Just before dusk, we drove to Moss Landing State Beach in time to see thousands of shorebirds chowing down as half a dozen photographers documented the noisy scene. Caspian terns, plovers, long-billed curlew and more than 300 other species feed there. Brown pelicans soared overhead and also assembled on the bank as harbor seals frolicked in the water.
Earlier, along the Salinas River, we saw a great white egret that towered over dozens of smaller birds feeding on the mudflats. My friend walked up and over the dunes and spotted an otter in the sea.
Spending time in nature reminds me this remarkable parallel universe is always available when I’m feeling “out of tune,” a phrase from William Wordsworth’s poem "The World Is Too Much with Us." In it, Wordsworth chides readers for their materialism and for distancing themselves from nature. Some things never change — he wrote that in 1802.
In addition to reconnecting with wildlife on my short getaway, I gobbled up panko-encrusted sand dabs at The Haute Enchilada in Moss Landing, fresh snapper at Duarte’s in Pescadero and cheesecake at Swanton’s Berry Farm, where I also scored three pints of Chandler strawberries, my favorite. As for anchovies and sardines — well, I’ll leave those for the flotillas of sea lions and their majestic dining companions.