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May 2004

Of wheelchairs and whale watching in Monterey Bay, California, USA.

Gray Whale

By Scott Rains,
Resident Scholar, Center for Cultural Studies,
University of California - Santa Cruz, USA.

Look for a little red building out at the end of Pier 2 at Monterey, California's Old Fisherman's Wharf. Overhead is a sign announcing, "Sam's Fleet". Inside you'll find a world on intimate terms with marine mammals. All around are books, posters, and photos of the whales, dolphins, seal lions, sea otters and other creatures you are likely to meet on a cruise with Monterey Bay Whale Watch. Off in one corner are mug shots of some of Monterey Bay's most notorious characters - the local killer whales. Naturalist Nancy Black studies the region's population and can identify individuals by their markings.

Fortunately for us, Nancy narrated the 10 A.M. cruise we took on a crisp January morning. She led us to groups of California Sea Lions, Gray Whales and Risso's Dolphins while describing their behaviors and some of the unique features of this beautiful region of America's Pacific coastline. Monterey Bay Whale Watch reports a nearly 100% success rate sighting whales on their cruises because each of their two daily trips is led by an experienced naturalist. Nancy scored a perfect 100 in my book.

Our day began with a short drive from the downtown Doubletree hotel at about 9 A.M. The trip would make a fine morning wheelchair accessible stroll of about 0.5 miles. Along the way you would cross the Monterey Bay Coastal Trail (Locally known as the Recreation Trail). Don't get sidetracked. This wheelchair accessible feature can be a full day's adventure from the dunes of Sand City, through Monterey and Pacific Grove, to the spectacular scenery off 17 Mile Drive.

But to catch the Monterey Bay Whale Watch tour you need to arrive early. The crowds gather eagerly for what is rated as the best whale-watching outfit in the region. For passengers with impaired mobility transferring from the dock to the boat can be treacherous (more below). So leave plenty of time and be prepared. We boarded the Sea Wolf II and headed to sea on a brisk January morning amid scattering clouds and traces of fog. I took up a comfortable position at the stern.

Our show began while we were still in the marina. California Sea Lions barked from their rock perches on the Coast Guard breakwater. We motored past a Harlequin duck as well as numerous terns, seagulls and Brandt's Cormorants. The further out we got into the Bay the more prominent the ocean swells became. The salt spray and gentle roller coaster effect were pleasant but taking a seasickness remedy before your cruise might be good insurance for some. (See below)

The trip from the Bay to the open ocean parallels Monterey's Ocean View Boulevard and the Recreation Trail. You can retrace much of your sea journey by following that land route. From that vantage point you will be able to examine up close the attractive homes, bed and breakfasts, and surf-enshrouded rocks that are visible from the boat.

As the boat passes beyond Cabrillo Point all eyes strain for signs of the Gray Whales migrating south from Alaska to breed along Mexico's Baja Peninsula. These whales exhale ("blow") every several minutes. Swimming majestically at about 2 miles per hour the captain can guide the boat to parallel their path for some breathtaking views.

We encounter a lone sea otter far from shore and a scattering of bobbing sea birds. Expectation mounts. The first blow raises excitement and fills the air with camera clicks. We move to intercept the first of about 15 Gray Whales we will see that day. Nancy explains that the worldwide population now numbers about 18,000 after near-extinction. The entire population travels past our vantage point twice a year - in the winter down from Alaska and in the summer up from Mexico. A deep underwater canyon known as the Carmel Canyon serves as a chute encouraging these shallow-water-loving mammals to be especially easy to view here as they hug the coastline. Gray Whales travel in small groups or as individuals. On the winter journey south they travel in roughly three waves. First the pregnant females head southward, then other females, followed by the males.

We learned that, as with so many things nautical there, is some specialized vocabulary involved in whale watching. To "blow" is to exhale. A blow is the signature spout of water droplets that a whale projects on the outbreath. To "breach" is to surface. Some spectacular breaches bring whales several feet out of the water and crashing back down with a tremendous spray. The term "fluke" is used for what would be called the tail on a fish. "Fluking" is the action a whale makes by raising its tail fluke out of the water upon diving. What remains on the surface of the water - a calm glassy patch - is know as a "fluke print". For this all-too-brief three-hour tour we fell into the Grays' rhythm of breach to blow to fluke print.

On our return we encountered several groups of Risso's Dolphins. At about 13 feet these seem small after the 45 foot Grays but Risso's Dolphins are large for dolphins. These blunt-headed gray and white creatures are rapid and seemed to be comfortable speeding alongside the boat.

Back in Monterey Bay among the moored boats of the marina, Nancy called our attention to a mother Southern Sea Otter. I briefly glimpsed the otter as she held a two month-old pup on her stomach reposing in the species' characteristic back float. However my attention was captured by a female sea lion repeatedly leaping straight out of the water. She would clear the surface of the water by nearly two feet as, fully extended, she touched the bottom of her chin to the top of a crossbar under a pier. Was she feeding? Trying to find a perch? Doing daily chin ups?

All in all, for a dose of outdoor inspiration, I recommend whale watching. The encounters with marine life are moving and memorable.

Risso's Dolphins

Trip accessibility

In terms of accessibility, this is not a journey for the faint-hearted! The transitions between dock and boat provide insight into why travel writing is not the #1 career choice of quadriplegics.

Getting onto the boat was difficult. It was eight steps down from the main pier to the main dock. The narrow boarding area was one step further down. Ambulatory passengers carefully took one long stride down onto the bulwark (the side of the boat - about 3 feet higher than its deck) and then down three steps to the deck itself. During this procedure the boat, responding to the waves, alternated between being flush against the boarding area or about 1 foot out. After some discussion, and one false start, we temporarily left my wheelchair behind and I was passed from hand-to-hand over the gap. The wheelchair followed.

One onboard I found a comfortable location at the stern which gave me unobstructed access to either side of the rear of the boat. The outside route up the sloping deck to the bow of the boat appeared too narrow for the wheelchair but I did not try it because it would have required everyone sitting along that side to get up and move. The route forward through the cabin was similarly cramped and included an unramped high threshold at the doorway. Bathroom facilities were the typical compact shipboard head.

Little did I realize as I watched the sea lion leaping up to the tag the pier that I was being given a premonition of things to come.

While out to sea, the tide had gone out another 6 feet or so. A ladder attached to the underside of the loading area - which had been underwater when we boarded - now added another four more steps up. The crew graciously offered to take me out on the next cruise and wait out the tide. I chose instead to piggy-back up with another passenger who had been helpful during embarkation. (Thanks Jodey!)

Lodging resources

Monterey California is awash in tourist amenities. You can find accessible dining and lodging to suite a range of preferences. Here are only four of the most prominent, centrally located choices.

Sea Lions

Major downtown Monterey hotels

DoubleTree Monterey:
2 Portola Plaza, Monterey CA 93940
Phone: 1-831-649-4511
Email: info@doubletreemonterey.com

We stayed comfortably at this centrally located hotel/conference center.

Monterey Marriott: 350 Calle Principal Monterey, California 93940
Phone: 1-831-649-4234

This hotel is adjacent to the DoubleTree via skyway and is equally convenient to downtown.

Major hotels near the Monterey aquarium

Monterey Bay Inn:
242 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940
Phone: 1-831-373-6242

This hotel is almost equidistant between the city's two major attractions - the whale - watching tours leaving from Old Fisherman's Wharf and the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row. A scenic pedestrian and bicycle path leads to either site.

Monterey Plaza Hotel & Spa:
400 Cannery Row, Monterey, CA 93940

You will pay a premium for this beachfront lodging on Cannery Row - but you won't soon forget the experience!

Related links

Humpback Whale

A Whale of a Time
Article on Monterey Bay Whale Watch published by the Monterey Herald.
Seasickness
There are several seasickness prevention and remedy strategies. This web site provides an opinionated, but experienced discussion of Scopolamine, Bonine®, Sea Band®, Ginger and Dramamine.
Monterey Bay Coastal Trail
The Monterey Bay Coastal Trail extends along a large part of Monterey Bay and around the Monterey peninsula. Visit the EVANS Monterey web site for more information or to take an online tour.
Monterey Bay Aquarium:
California gray whales are the most commonly seen baleen whale in Monterey Bay. This site provides information and facts about the grey whales breeding, diet, conservation and size.

All photos are copyright Monterey Bay Whale Watch.

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