Last Summer, I was lucky enough to visit Monterey Bay in California. I have always been fascinated by whales, but had never had the chance to see one in real life. As Monterey Bay is renowned for its whale watching tours, I jumped at the chance to take one. I barely slept the night before; my excitement at the prospect of seeing a whale in real life kept me up into the early hours of the morning.

That morning, not a single cloud marred the perfectly blue sky. The air was crisp, tinged with a hint of seawater, and the ocean was calm as we boarded the boat. Safety checks done, the boat sputtered into life, and we began to crawl out of the harbour. Sea otters drifted lazily past the boat on their backs, watching us with curious eyes. It looked as if a tanker carrying soft toys had crashed somewhere nearby, spilling these button-nosed creatures into the sea. I was so entranced by the otters that I barely noticed we had left the harbour; suddenly, we were in the middle of the open ocean.

A vast expanse of calm, dark water stretched out beyond the horizon.

I had expected a quiet day at sea, perhaps spotting one or two whales in the distance over the course of the three-hour excursion. As a result, I had my head tilted toward the sun as we traversed the kelp fields of Monterey Bay, soaking up some desperately needed vitamin D. Out of nowhere, a loud hissing sound broke my revery. A humpback had surfaced right next to our tiny boat, shooting an arc of droplets from its blowhole, creating a tiny rainbow in the sun.

A humpback disappears below the water.

My breath caught in my throat. The whale was almost within touching distance. Its skin was pocked and scarred, a testament to the decades it had spent at sea. It cruised effortlessly beside us for a minute or two, before disappearing into the inky water. I struggled to comprehend what I had just seen, dumbfounded by the fact that I had been just metres away from a humpback whale. I found myself blinking back tears. I still can’t explain why, but there was something deeply emotional about the experience; sharing the water with such an ancient, powerful animal made me realise how lucky we are to live in such a beautiful world.

In the back of my mind, however, I felt deeply guilty—as if we didn’t deserve the company of these magnificent beasts. I began to wonder if these gentle creatures would still be here in 100 years time, or if they would be another victim of humanity’s greed and sloth. As humans, we are all responsible for the pollution of the oceans, the over-exploitation of fish stocks, and the destruction of marine biodiversity on a global scale. Despite all we have done to them (and unfortunately, all we will continue to do), they swam gently beside us, without any hint of the malice that we surely deserve.

I had barely gotten over the shock of the humpback when the unmistakable fin of a killer whale emerged from the water—soon joined by two companions.

Three killer whales surfaced right next to our boat.

Unlike the ambling gait of the humpback whale, the killers moved with purpose, slicing through the water like knives. They passed just metres under our tiny boat and surfaced on the other side, almost as if they were investigating us. Before too long, something else piqued their curiosity. An unfortunate sea lion, separated from its raft (fun fact: a group of sea lions is named differently, depending on whether they’re on land or in the water. On land, they are called a colony; in the water, they are called a raft), had been marked as their next meal.

The killer whales made short work of the sea lion, throwing it in the air repeatedly in order to stun it. Just as they seemed to be getting bored of their game, a humpback surfaced beside them. It began to harass the orcas, pushing them away from the sea lion. The humpback continued to follow the orcas for several miles (as did we), before retreating beneath the water. The captain told us that he had seen this kind of behaviour many times; humpbacks coming to the aid of other marine mammals. He said that humpbacks are one of the only animals to exhibit truly altruistic behaviour, helping in situations which offer no direct benefit to themselves.

Sea lions travel through the water in large groups known as rafts.

There is something incredibly humbling about watching a whale cruise along beside you. These impassive, majestic creatures could have capsized our boat with a lazy flick of their tail. Instead, they swam beside us, seemingly inquisitive, before disappearing beneath the water. With a whole ocean to choose from, they chose to accompany us on our tiny foray into their domain. Whether it was purely coincidence or genuine curiosity, I suppose I will never know—but there are few better ways to appreciate the world we live in than by spending a day at sea with a whale.

2 thoughts on “Whale Watching in Monterey Bay”

  1. Great post Emily! ☺ who knew that humpbacks exhibit altruistic behaviour? I wonder what they gain by helping others? Maybe they too have a sense of pity/justice?

    1. Hey Lucy! Glad you enjoyed the post.

      It’s incredible, isn’t it? Some scientists believe that there must be an evolutionary advantage to this behaviour; perhaps the whales are simply responding to the hunting calls of the orca, on the off-chance a fellow humpback is being attacked. However, to me, this behaviour seems to transcend traditional, biological explanations. It seems hard to reason that pity or justice don’t play into their decision making at all. Either way, there is something deeply intelligent about an animal which comes to the aid of unrelated creatures.

      Here’s to hoping we learn to understand them better within our lifetimes!

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