Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Monterey Bay Whale Watching

Years ago I went whale watching and it was a great experience yet never managed to make it back again...for almost 15 years. With my daughter's birthday coming up, and knowing her love of whales and dolphins, I thought "What a great Birthday present for her! I'll take her out for a birthday experience instead of another "thing" for her home." and since it's so affordable (between $40 and $50 per person) it was easy to do. She picked the very early morning trip which leaves at 7am out of Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey and included a continental breakfast (at no extra cost). We chose Monterey Bay Whale Watch Center as our vendor (there are many in the area) since they are the only one who goes out that early. 
 And we say early, we mean early. It was so foggy you could almost not see the boats in the marina. It was a cool effect but made us wonder how much we were actually going to be able to see.
 Of course, close to the center, you could see very clearly. This guy likes to hang out here so we stop and say HI every time we visit.
 You are told to arrive 30 minutes early for check in. We were running a tad bit late so we arrived at about 20 minutes before the launch time and it was a tight schedule. Next time we'll arrive about 40 minutes early just so we don't feel so rushed.
 This is our boat. This is the upper level but it's only 70 feet long. Big enough to hold our group of about 30 comfortably, giving everyone room at the rails to see the whales, but small enough to get closer to the animals without stressing them out. We can not praise the crew enough. Isaiah was the crew member we saw the most but they were all very helpful, knowledgeable and kind.
 Our very first wildlife sighting was this sea otter. He was playing in the water quite close to the boat.
 I don't know if this is a Mama/Baby situation but they rough-housed a bit then cuddled a bit and then rough-housed a bit more before the larger otter swam off again. This "kiss" was during the cuddle time. So sweet!
 I loved this sea lion on the buoy in the marina! The fog makes this seem more like a painting than a photograph. You will see many seals and sea lions in the Fisherman's Wharf marina from the docks as well as from the jetty.
 They congregate at the end of the jetty and swim all over the marina. So early in the morning most of them were still on the rocks with the cormorants waiting for the fog to lift.
But when it began to lift we got some pretty dramatic views! You could still see the fingers of fog touching the surface of the water as the sun spotlighted the Monterey and Pacific Grove coastline.
And the views are definitely a part of whale watching. To see the hills peaking out of the fog bank as it begins to lift over the Monterey Bay is a breathtaking experience.
And when the sun actually breaks through and turns the water to liquid silver you will swear that you haven't seen much that is more beautiful in your entire life.
Of course, some people see this view all of the time. These fishermen in their kayaks were paddling out to deeper water. While I'm sure they were having a great time we all agreed that, in order to get so far out that early in the morning, they had to have left shore while most of us were still sound asleep. Crazy talk there! 

And speaking of crazy talk. Here are some hard learned lessons about whale watching. 1. It's freezing. No, not just cold, freezing. I dressed appropriately for the top of my body, remembering gloves and layering up, but totally forgot to do the same for the bottom part of my body. I was so cold from the hip down I was shaking the entire trip. If it is 50 degrees on shore then it's going to feel like it's below freezing when you get out to the deep ocean and that wind is blasting you on the boat. 2. Bring water. We were some of the lucky ones. I felt nauseated twice and actually tossed over the rail once. There were those who spent a good part of the trip over the rail. The one thing we wanted was water. To get water on board you have to go inside...which will make your seasickness worse. We did take a half dose of dramamine but next time it will be a whole dose and I'll have a bottle of water with me as well. 3. Don't bring your dogs. I know this seems like a "gimmee" but please...just Don't. There were about a half dozen on our trip and if you think seasickness is bad, add a whiff of doggy doo to the mix.  Yeah...no...don't. You may love your dog but trapping them on a boat with nowhere to go do their business for 4 hours isn't good for them or anyone else on board. 4. Please consider waiting till your children are older to bring them on a trip. We felt so badly for this young boy, about 6 years old we think, who was freezing or sick most of the trip. If it's hard for you as an adult to feel this way please consider how your kid is going to feel. Now if you are a boating family and your kids have been on a boat many times without problems then great, bring them along. 4.  I consider my side effects to be minor. And I may have been fine if I'd been dressed properly and taken a whole dose of dramamine. But with winter swells out in the deep water...and we were really rocking out there...I may have still felt sick. Be prepared for it. I would have happily gone out the next day but, for some, feeling seasick at all isn't worth the trip. Just go prepared that this can happen.
Of course the moment we saw the plume of water that meant a whale was near the adrenaline kicked in and we rushed to the rail to see!
The first pod had 3 Grey Whales in it. Here is where I learned another lesson. Camera's can freeze. Literally. My camera card froze. I had to pop it out and back in again to get my camera to work. So if it's that cold out there make sure that you know how to warm up your camera between sightings so you don't miss much!
Thankfully Tory's camera was working and she caught the moment the Grey Whale breached! It was a totally thrilling moment for us all! Grey Whales don't breach like this often so it was quite the treat!
I was able to catch the one fluke of the day as the whales make their deep dive. When watching whales you will see the plume, some of their backs and when you see the arch it means they are about to go under. They can stay under for a few minutes to 10 minutes at a time. Right before they go under is the moment when you may see a fluke. Using a "sports" mode or a high shutterspeed can really help you catch that fleeting moment.
And this trip was really a learning experience for me as a photographer. Everything happens SO fast that before you know it, the whales are gone again. 
While there were not many whales sighted on our trip it was a day for the "rare" occurrences. When this whale popped up nearly next to the boat we were all totally enthralled. In this photo you can see the spout, where the whale breathes, on the right hand side of the photo, before he began to dive again.
 But it was when he began to dive the marine biologist on board let us know that this was a rare sighting of a Fin Whale. Only seen about once a year in the Monterey Bay, these whales are the second biggest whale behind the Blue Whale. This amazing mammal is about 70 feet long...as long as our boat! 
Being able to see him so close to us and watch as he swam near us and finally dove below the surface was simply amazing. It is moments like this that, for me, made the miserable parts of the trip totally worth it.
We only saw 7 whales that day. This is a relatively low time of the year for whale watching so check the charts in your area for peak times. The  Pacific Migratory Route runs from December to February when the whales migrate from the Arctic down to Mexico for calving and then from April to June as they migrate back up with their babies. There are whales to be seen year round but those are the two times of year you will see the highest counts. Being so late in February we knew that we probably wouldn't see many.
But when you see that plume of water and the back of a whale poke out of the water it truly takes your breath away! So even with only 7 whales it was an amazing time out there.
Brown pelicans are common in this area but it still makes me so happy to see them flying from spot to spot. If you are a "birder" you will find plenty of birds to see while you are waiting for the whales to appear.
The other joy we had was the dolphins! I had seen the counts for the previous week with hundreds of dolphins being spotted before our trip but, as we began to head back to the docks, we had not seen a single one. Then suddenly we saw them heading towards us! (Don't forget to click on the small photos to see the larger versions!)

You can see how close we are to making it back because that's the Monterey Bay Aquarium in the background! This pod of over 200 dolphins just amazed us all!
There were none and then suddenly there were so many in the water in a long line that it was overwhelming!
They got quite close to the boat. These are Short Beaked Common Dolphins. They are always found in pods of a couple of hundred animals up to a thousand animals! 
 As they approached the boat they would swim under it and come up the other side. Tory was able to catch this shot of the dolphin just under the water and the one below when he surfaced again.
It was so much fun, and a definite highlight, of our trip to see these animals play around our boat. By this time, as well, we had warmed up, were in smooth waters and everyone felt just fine. It was like a reward for our enduring the deep water chop! What a great way to end our trip!
Once we were back off the boat it was time to go find something to eat. We were both starving and now that the seasickness was completely gone we were ready to find somewhere to chow down! It was about 10:30 and by that time Fisherman's Wharf was beginning to open up.
Vendors were setting out displays like this one of cooked lobster. You could just wrap one of these up and head home for a lobster salad! 
And if lobster isn't your choice then there are fully cooked crab available too. As tempting as both lobster and crab was to us, at this point we were still thinking we needed breakfast. 

We had thought, since breakfast was available on the boat (which, obviously, we didn't eat) we had made lunch plans but not breakfast. We had done no research on where to eat on the Wharf. But Crab Louie's Bistro had a huge sign up out front and, after perusing the menu outside, we decided it was a great place to try!
We were led right to a table by the windows. So a meal with a view! Being so early in the morning there wasn't a crowd yet. The restaurant is small. I'd estimate only about a dozen tables and only 5 of those are near the windows. So this is a great place to go for breakfast!
As we enjoyed our french toast, coffee and fried potatoes (all of which was SO good!) we were treated to this female brown pelican right outside the window. She kept an eye on me for awhile trying to decide if I was safe or not.
Finally she began to preen. So now we had breakfast with a view AND a floor show! These are really large birds and while elegant fliers, they are kind of cumbersome on land.
I guess I passed the test because she settled down on her perch and with one last check to make sure I couldn't somehow get to her through the window, she settled in for her nap.
After our wonderful breakfast (you can see the menu here:  Crab Louie's Bistro) we headed back to our car in the Wharf parking lot. There are several places to park in the area but this is the most convenient. Of course, with convenience comes cost. It was $10 to park the entire 6 hours we were there. More than worth it to us. And with this postcard perfect view how could you possibly be disappointed? 

I'm hoping to go out again in early May to see if I can get lucky enough to see the Orca's that can be found in the Bay from April to June. I've been warned that this is the time of year the Orca's favorite food is also in the Bay...baby Grey and Humpback Whales. For some this would be a cool feature...to get to see a "kill" but, for me, I'm hoping just to see them hunting in the waters, not see their success. 

See you next time! And, until then, you can see more beauty by checking out my Facebook and Instagram pages each day online or just follow me, Shutterbugtraveler, on Instagram on your phone app.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Colusa NWR ~ After the Rain

A few weeks ago we went to Colusa National Wildlife Refuge and I posted a blog about it. At that time we had not had rain in many weeks and the migrating birds were packed on the water. The day before this trip it stormed. Buckets of rain sort of stormed. What this does is flood the farms in the area and the birds, searching for a new food source, spread out over the area and off of the refuge lands.  

Here is what the ponds looked like a few weeks ago:
 Lots of Snow Geese and White fronted Geese crowded the ponds.
But on this day the numbers were greatly depleted. This was the largest gathering that we found on the refuge and you can see there are no Snow Geese in the mix.
But even with out the larger numbers of birds we were rewarded with many beautiful views. The rain had helped everything start to green up, making the trails beautiful.
 Shoveler Ducks were the most common duck we saw that day. Their too large for their face beaks make them easy to spot.
 With the higher water levels the ducks were often further out into the ponds but occasionally you could find them closer to shore. 
But, because there were not huge crowds of birds we were able to easily see the smaller ducks like this female Bufflehead!
 I was delighted to watch this Black Necked Stilt pick his way across a sandbar. These small waterbirds are often lost in the huge flocks that come here but are easy to see when the birds are more spread out.
 The White Fronted Geese were easy to find, gathered in small groups of 3-4 birds in each area. They always seem to be in a meeting. Like major discussions are happening right in front of me!
But there were far more to be found out in the fields where the camouflage worked for them. I have no idea what got their notice but after a few moments they continued to waddle their way across the field.
And Jackrabbits were everywhere! They would pop out of the brush, to our immense delight, and race to another area and disappear, like magic, back into the bush. Moments like that make you feel like you are a little kid again.
 The roads offered up more treats along our way! These teeny plover were crossing the road up ahead of us so we just creeped our way on up till we got close enough. As I mentioned last week, creeping up to see the birds can be a learned art. You have to learn to search the roads and fields ahead of you so you can gently slow down and creep along without frightening the birds away.
While observing the plover these Turkey Vultures decided to drop in on this bit of fresh pigeon roadkill. These are truly huge birds. With 6 foot wingspans they are rather impressive to see up close. It's a bit disgusting but we never got to see them feed due to another car approaching.
Since there were so many different water areas to choose from, the geese were often in the air traveling from pond to pond.
 The male Shoveler Duck is a gorgeous bird. Emerald green with hints of royal blue on his head, yellow eyes and rust feathers make him one of the more beautiful ducks you can find.
 We both wanted to visit the Black Crowned Night Herons again. Neither of us had gotten over the idea of this nesting area for over 100 birds actually existed and were anxious to see if it was a one time treat.
 I'm happy to say that it's not a one time thing! We found the herons exactly where they were before. This time, since it was later in the day than our previous visit, some of the herons were awake so we got to see their full colors.
 Most were still hiding in their branch nests up in the trees and while there were not quite as many as before, about 70 this time, the vast number just takes your breath away. They are located at the end of the route on your left. So as you approach the bridge again make sure to look left and find them hiding in their branches!
 As with Sacramento NWR, the egrets were everywhere. We had driven past this one on our way into the refuge and he was still in the same place when we were driving out again so I made the joke that I had to take a photo of our "buddy". He stood totally still, posing perfectly, while I took his portrait. He took a step or two right before we drove away but he didn't fly away. Make sure you click on the small image to really see how gorgeous he is in the larger version! 
 Our last treat before leaving the refuge was seeing the deer. I'm not sure if this was Mama and her two babies but the smaller two still seem fuzzy-furry to me like they are still babies.
While watching two other deer this one emerged from the woods. There is just something so delicate and wonderful about her that she, rather than the other two, is the one who captivated me.
 We left the refuge and began our journey home. The area is filled with farms and orchards and, with our early Spring arriving, some of the trees had begun to bloom. I love how this barn looks with the bare branch Winter trees.
With the rain greening out the grass of the orchards the bare branches look even more striking. In this area you will find almond and pistachio orchards. In fact, California produces most of the pistachios in the world! In Spring you will find these orchards covered in pink and white blossoms. 
This beautiful sight of sun rays ended our day. The clouds were rolling back in again, another storm followed our brief break, but it certainly put on a gorgeous show for us.

This next weekend finds us traveling again. I'm going Whale Watching and can't wait to share those photos and that experience with you all.  After that we are headed to the San Luis NWR to see if we can find some Tule Elk! See you next week!

In the meantime you can find daily beauty over at my Facebook Site and on Instagram!