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Friday, March 20, 2009

Monterey Whale (and Bird) Watch

Today we made it to Monterey in good time, so I had a chance to check out the spectacular Monterey Bay Aquarium. It's the best aquarium I've been to, in part because they've chosen not to keep any marine mammals other than otters at their facility, instead featuring a huge array of other underwater critters. They also run the Seafood Watch Program which promotes sustainable fisheries, something you should definitely check out if you are a seafood eater. When I first went to this aquarium about 10 years ago, I spent 8 hours (the entire time they were open) there. Today, I didn't have that luxury, but I did have a chance to take in my favorite exhibit - the jellyfish:

Then it was off for our whale-watching trip out of Monterey Bay. The weather wasn't great - overcast, breezy, chilly - but as soon as we got on board we were greeted by two whale-watching dogs who looked more than ready to help us spot whatever we could out there:

Before we even pulled all the way out of the marina we were stopping to take in the Brandt's cormorants and California sea lions on the jetty:

Sea lions are full of characeter and, in my opinion, very expressive while they are hauled out:

But what was most captivating was the group (or mass of them, really) resting in the water with flippers held up in the air. At first we were befuddled by this behavior but after thinking about how orcas regulate body heat by losing extra warmth through their dorsal fin I figured it probably had something to do with temperature regulation. A quick internet search once we got home (which coincidentally led to an informative Monterey Bay Aquarium page) confirmed this theory - by keeping their flippers above water while resting they can absorb heat from the sun and avoid losing further body heat to the water while they are resting. Hmmm....where was our naturalist to explain this to us on the boat?

As it turns out, the sea conditions were pretty rough and spotting gray whales was difficult. We did get glimpses of 4 whales, but nothing like the views we've had whale-watching off Depoe Bay on the Oregon Coast. As I very well know, every trip is different and some days are just tough when it comes to sightings. While we were disappointed not to have better cetacean encounters, the bird sightings made up for it. Shearwaters and kittiwakes? Sign me up! Those are species I've only ever seen on a pelagic birding trip I took years ago from Newport, Oregon. The most exciting find of the day (pointed out by our more informative naturalist once he realized I was interested in birds) was a black-footed albatross, a life bird for the entire Wieland clan. Look at that huge, seven foot wingspan and those thin wings designed for soaring over great oceanic distances:

When it became apparant great whale sightings weren't going to happen the captain indulged us bird-watchers by checking out a few bait balls:

It's a little blurry, but I like this shot of a black-legged kittiwake with a California gull in the background:

We didn't see any other marine mammals until we got back near the marina, where we saw the symbol of Monterey Bay, the sea otter:

There were more great birds to be seen by the docks, like the common loon in the photo below. For many species, some birds were in winter plumage while others had already molted into summer plumage. This loon was still in winter plumage:

Here are species lists for the day, with 34 spectacular different birds represented. Not a huge number, but some great, great finds. Next up for tomorrow's post will be the 17-mile drive: cypress trees, sand dunes, and mansions.

Mammal List

Harbor seal
California sea lion
Gray whale
Sea otter
California (aka Beechey's) ground squirrel
Black-tailed deer

Bird List
Common loon
Horned grebe
Eared grebe
Black-footed albatross - life bird

Northern fulmar
Pink-footed shearwater
Sooty shearwater
Brown pelican
Brandt's cormorant
Pelagic cormorant
Great egret
Snowy egret
Turkey vulture
Surf scoter
Red-breasted merganser
Red-tailed hawk
Black oystercatcher
California gull
Western gull
Black-legged kittiwake
Common murre
Pigeon guillemot
Rhinoceros auklet
Rock dove
Mourning dove
Hummingbird sp.
American crow
Black-capped chickadee
European starling
Townsend's warbler
Dark-eyed junco
Red-winged blackbird
Brewer's blackbird


Lancashire and Lakeland Outback Adventure Wildlife Safaris said...

Hi Monika
You're spoiling us now sea otters, sea lions, labradors hard to tell which gets the wettest...probably the Labraors! And gull pics too - you're having a great trip keep the news coming



Anonymous said...

welcome to my neck of the woods! i live north of san francisco and am a regular to the san juans for my orca fixes. sorry to hear the whales were scarce. i'm guessing you heard we had a recent visit by L pod last week. i do appreciate your bird lists and your pics. it's a great blog. anyway, enjoy northern cal... though it looks like the rain has returned!


Michele Wassell said...

Sounds like your having a great road trip with your family... Jelly-fish exhibit is my favorite there too. Its such a beautiful exhibit and the colors of the jelly-fish are so vibrant. The black-legged kittiwake is a gorgeous bird. I have never seen one like that before. Enjoy the rest of your trip!

Michele Wassell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Monika said...

Dave - I'm glad you've enjoyed the updates. You're probably right about the labradors, and you would know first hand!

Julie - It's a beautiful part of the country! I did hear about L-Pod, we were joking that we might travel down to Monterey to see gray whales and end up seeing L-Pod! Thanks for commenting and let me know when you next make it up to the islands!

Michele - it is something about the lighting and colors of the jellyfish that make them such a joy to watch in an aquarium setting. I could sit their forever and watch them, as they are so graceful!