Monterey Bay, California is one of the only places in the world that has whale watching year-round! One of the reasons there is always something to see, is that we have both transient (migrating) and resident sea life that rarely leaves Monterey Bay. Protected as a National Marine Sanctuary, the bay is healthy and teeming with wildlife from every level of the food chain. With such diversity, there is always something to see and we want you to know what to look for!
While on your whale watching tour, you may get a chance to see humpback whales, gray whales, blue whales, fin whales, minke whales and beaked whales as well as various species of dolphins such as killer whales (Orcas), bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, long-beaked common dolphin, and pacific white-sided dolphins.
Other common sightings on Monterey Bay include the leatherback turtle, porpoises, sea lions, elephant seals, the Pacific Sun Fish also known as a Mola Mola, and of course the cute, iconic Monterey Bay sea otters!
Baleen whales are some of the largest animals on earth, yet they feed on some of the smallest animals in the ocean.
Characteristic baleen plates and paired blowholes help distinguish baleen whales from toothed whales (Odontoceti).
Baleen whales were named for the long, strong, and flexible plates of baleen which hang in a row (like the teeth of a comb) from their upper jaws that are made of a protein similar to human fingernails.
Baleen whales strain huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates to capture food: tons of krill, other zooplankton, crustaceans, and small fish.
Baleen plates range in color from black to yellow or white, depending on the species.
Humpback Whales Season: April through November Life Expectancy: Up to 80 years Average Length: 50 feet (15.2 meters) long–about as long as a school bus Average Weight: Endangered: Yes
The acrobatic Humpbacks are large and grayish in color; with distinctive long flippers and a ‘hump’ preceding the small dorsal fin. They are known for their showy antics including breaching and other surface behaviors such as lunge feeding, pectoral slapping, fluke diving and other exciting behaviors. They consume krill, anchovies, cod, sardines, mackerel, capelin, and others sorts of schooling fish.
Gray Whales Season: December through April Life Expectancy: 55-70 years Average Length: 49 feet Average Weight: 30-40 tons (60,000-80,000 pounds) Endangered: removed from the endangered species list in 1994, however they are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act
Gray whales are the most coastal of the baleen whales and are often found only a few miles off shore. Each year starting in December, gray whales migrate from their summer feeding grounds in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas down to Baja California, Mexico – their winter breeding ground. For thousands of years, this 20,000 mile migration route also known as the “Gray Whale Migration Highway”, includes a stop in Monterey Bay and is one of the longest migrations by a mammal species. They return to Monterey Bay after birthing and can be seen with their calves starting in March. Gray whales are gray in color and instead of a dorsal fin they have a low dorsal hump followed by 6-12 “knuckles” or bumps.
Blue Whale Season: August through October Life Expectancy: 80-90 years Average Length: up to 110 feet Average Weight: 200 tons (400,000 pounds!) Endangered: Yes
Blue whales are the largest animal in the world – even larger than dinosaurs! They are spotted bluish gray, with broad flat heads and a small dorsal fin located in the last forth of the body. When a blue whale blows (spouts) the combination of air and water can rise as high as 30 feet! A blue whale heart is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and pumps 10 tons of blood through the massive blue whale body. A blue whale aorta (the main blood vessel) alone is large enough for a human to crawl through. Their diet consists of mainly krill – small crustaceans.
Minke Whale Season: April through November Life Expectancy: 30-50 years Average Length: 23-35 feet Average Weight: 5.5 tons (12,125 pounds) Endangered: No
Minke whales are the second smallest baleen whale with only the pygmy right whale being smaller. They are black/gray/purple color and have a white band on each flipper. Unlike the acrobatic humpback whale, Minke’s do not raise their flukes out of the water when diving and are less likely to breach. However, you should be able to identify them by their very long flippers, small dorsal fin and ridges on their back near their tail. It is said that Minke’s are very curious and may be quietly checking out whale watchers without you knowing.
Fin Whale Season: April through November Life Expectancy: Up to 100 years! Average Length: Up to 90 feet Average Weight: 75 tons (165,347 pounds) Endangered: Yes
Measuring up to 90 feet long, Fin Whales (also known as finback whales, razorback or common rorqual) are the second largest animal after the blue whale. Their nickname “Greyhound of the Sea” is due to its slender streamlined body that can surpass the speed of the fastest ocean steamship – swimming up to 25 miles per hour! The fin whale is usually distinguished by its tall spout, long back with a small pointed dorsal fin resembling a razorback, and asymmetrical brownish-grey coloration with a pale underside. Similar to the blue whale, Fin whales prefer traveling along or in small pods rather than large groups. The only known predator to the Fin whales is killer whales.
TOOTHED WHALES (Odontocetes)
Of the 86 recognized species of whales, dolphins, and porpoises, 72 of them are Odontocetes, or toothed whales. This makes them a more diverse group than the baleen whales.
Unlike baleen whales, toothed whales have conical teeth uniform in shape. They have a single set of teeth that they are born with and are never replaced during their life.
The number of teeth varies by species with as little as a single pair of teeth (beaked whales) to more than 40 pairs of teeth (dolphins). Their teeth are designed to mainly catch fish or squid.
The other difference between baleen and toothed whales is their blowholes. Toothed whales have only one blowhole on the top of their head whereas baleen whales have two.
Just below the blowhole and above their beak, is a melon – a fluid-filled structure in their forehead that is believed to function in echolocation.
With well-developed hearing in both air and water in addition to their echolocation ability, toothed whales can survive even if they are blind!
Sperm Whale Season: April through November Life Expectancy: 70 years Average Length: 67 feet Average Weight: 56 tons (123,459 pounds) Endangered: Yes
Sperm whales are unique in that they have the largest brain of any animal on Earth weighing up to 20 pounds! They are grayish in color, have extremely large flippers, a large head where oil is produced (Spermaceti Oil) and rows of sharp teeth. Sperm whales are able to dive over 3,300 feet, holding the record for being able to dive deeper than any other whale in the world. Fun Fact: The story of Moby Dick is based on a sperm whale.
Beaked Whale – Baird’s & Cuvier’s Season: April through November Life Expectancy: 40 (Cuvier’s) to 84 (Baird’s) years Average Length: 39-42 feet Average Weight: 10 tons (20,000 pounds) Endangered: Data Deficient (DD)
Out of the approximately 20 beaked whale species, Baird’s and Cuvier’s are frequent visitors to Monterey Bay. They are some of the most extreme divers and can remain submerged for prolonged periods at 20-30 minutes at great depths. A dive as long as 85 minutes has even been recorded!
Baird’s Beaked Whale: Favoring deep ocean waters between 3,000-10,000 feet, Baird’s is one of the most commonly spotted beaked whales. It has a small, curved dorsal fin, small & narrow flippers that can be tucked into pockets of their body wall, and has a large fluke without a media notch found on other cetaceans.
Cuvier’s Beaked Whale: Cuvier’s beaked whales vary in color from dark grey to reddish-brown, all with white scars and patches. In comparison to other beaked whale species, Cuvier’s have a short beak and a white strip that runs back to the dorsal fin.
Life Expectancy: 75 years
Average Length: 30 feet
Average Weight: 11 tons (22,000 pounds) Endangered: No
Killer whales, also known as Orca’s, are actually a member of the dolphin family. They are unmistakable in the wild with their distinctive black and white markings and tall dorsal fins reaching up to 6 feet tall (male). Organized in family groups called pods, killer whales stick together in groups of 10-50. Despite their name, interactions with humans in the wild have never been reported, which cannot be said for their prey of fish, sharks, cephalopods, sea turtles, sea birds, whales, seals and other pinnipeds.
Risso’s Dolphins Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 20 years Average Length: 13 feet Average Weight: 1,100 pounds Endangered: Protected under the MMPA
Risso’s dolphins are easily identified by their heavily-scarred body with scratches from teeth raking between dolphins, as well as circular markings from their prey such as squid and sharks and their rounded, bulbous head with a crease that runs from the forehead to the mouth. As they age, their black/dark gray color lightens to brown/pale gray to almost all white. Their behavior is similar to humpback whales in that they are quite acrobatic at the surface while breaching, spy hopping, flipper slapping and lob tailing. Like other toothed whales, Risso’s dolphins use echolocation to find their food. This involves clicking noises making a variety of other sounds, including whistles, barks, buzzes, grunts, chirps and a unique whistle-pulse vocalization.
Bottlenose Dolphins Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 30-50 years Average Length: 8-12 feet Average Weight: 1,400 pounds Endangered: No
Bottlenose dolphins are one of the most well-known and lovable cetaceans. Known for their playfulness, bottlenose dolphins are quite curios and acrobatic. Ranging from light to dark gray, they also have a prominent “beak”. Their diet consists of fish, squid, and crustaceans and has a wide variety of capturing their food while using echolocation to find their prey. Bottlenose dolphins are considered one of the smartest animals on planet earth.
Common Dolphins Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 35 years Average Length: 8.5 feet Average Weight: 500 pounds Endangered: No
As recently as 1994, common dolphins were considered one species until they divided them into at least two species – short-beaked and long-beaked common dolphin. While both look similar, the long-beaked common dolphin is slighter larger with a longer beak and more flattened melon and have overlapping habitats. Large pods in the hundreds can often be seen, however they also break off into smaller pods of 10-30 dolphins. Common dolphins are acrobatic and to the delight of our guests, can often be seen jumping and riding the bow waves of our vessel. Common dolphins are one of the most numerous cetaceans in the world, with a population that is estimated to be over one million.
Pacific White-Sided Dolphins Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 45 years Average Length: 6-8 feet Average Weight: 185-330 pounds Endangered: No
If you see a large pod of several hundred dolphins, it may very well be the Pacific white-sided dolphin. They are often mistaken for the common dolphin, however just like their name says, they have a white coloration on their sides and underneath. Pacific White-sided dolphin have a short, rounded, thick beak containing 23 to 32 small, rounded slightly curved teeth in each side of the upper and lower jaws and a tall, sharply hooked dorsal fin. Their diet consists of squid and small schooling fish such as anchovies, herring, sardines, hake, salmon, rockfish, and pollock.
Northern Right Whale Dolphins Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 40 years Average Length: Up to 10 feet Average Weight: 130-250 pounds Endangered: No
With a dark, slender streamlined body, northern right whale dolphins are fast swimmers capable of long jumps and breaches more than 20 feet over the surface of the water at speeds of 22 mph. It is the only species of dolphin without a dorsal fin found in the North Pacific Ocean. They are found in large, close social groups (herds) of about 100-200, but can also be found in mixed schools of 2,000-3,000 cetaceans! Keep an eye out for these dolphins as they tend to be shy and cautious around people and boats, but are also acrobatic in breaching, flops, and lob tailing.
Life Expectancy: 15-20 years
Average Length: 7-8 feet
Average Weight: 480 pounds
Dall’s Porpoises: Considered to be the fastest swimmers among small cetaceans, Dall’s porpoises can reach speeds of 34 miles per hours in short distances with their stout, muscular body. They have spade-shaped teeth, unlike the dolphins conical-shaped teeth), have a triangular head with little or no beak and a triangular shaped dorsal fin that angles forward. Their diet consists of anchovies, herring, hake, smelts, squid, octopus, and occasionally crabs and shrimp. While Dall’s porpoises do bow ride, they prefer faster moving vessels.
Harbor Porpoise Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 15 years Average Length: 4.5-6.5 feet Average Weight: 170 pounds Endangered: No
Harbor Porpoise: Of the six species of porpoise, the Harbor Porpoise is one of the smallest marine mammals. Found close to coastal areas, they tend not to leave the area for too long and dive in short spurts from 1-5 minutes. With a robust body, these animals have a triangular dorsal fin and are dark grey in color with slightly speckled lighter grey sides.
Monterey Bay is not only special for whales, but is such a healthy ecosystem, that much other wildlife makes it their habitat. One of the most iconic creatures is our lovable Sea Otter, and the annual Elephant Seal Migration is another spectacular event drawing such notable companies as National Geographic and the Discovery Channel for filming opportunities. Most people only have the chance to watch these animals on TV, but we are lucky enough to have all of these in our own backyard!
California Sea Otter Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 15-20 years Average Length: 4 feet Average Weight: 4-65 pounds Endangered: Threatened
Did you know that the California sea otter is related to land mammals such as the weasel, mink, and badger? As the heaviest member of the weasel family, they are also the second smallest of the marine mammals. With a density of fur ranging from 250,000 to a million hairs per square inch, sea otters do not need a layer of blubber like other marine mammals to keep them warm. With a high metabolism, sea otters must eat about 25% of their body weight each day as they dine on urchins, abalone, mussels, clams, crabs, snails and about 40 other marine species. Sea otters are also one of the few mammals other than primates known to use tools. They use small rocks or other objects to pry shellfish from rocks and to hammer them open.
California Sea Lion Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 30 years Average Length: 5.5-7.25 feet Average Weight: 610-860 pounds Endangered: No
Endearingly known as the circus seal, sea lions are graceful and acrobatic swimmers that are also capable of getting around on land. They have streamlined bodies with large pectoral fins allowing them to race through the water at up to speeds of 25 mph catching their favorite meals o small fish and squid, along with shellfish and octopus. These eared seals, with small furry ear flaps, are quite vocal making loud sounds similar to a dog barking.
Northern Elephant Seal Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 9 years Average Length: 20 feet Average Weight: 8,800 pounds Endangered: No
Northern elephant seals are the largest seal in the world! They have a large body size and a unique shaped nose resembling and elephants trunk. They can get quite rowdy during breeding season as males battle each other for mating dominance with loud roaring and aggressive posturing resulting in the gathering of a female harem with 40-50 females. Elephant seals can dive over 4,900 feet and remain submerged for up to two hours!
Stellar Sea Lion Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 18 years – males 30 years – females Average Length: 7.7-9.25 feet Average Weight: 770 pounds – females 2,500 pounds – males Endangered: Yes
This pinniped is the largest of all sea lions, with the males (bulls) being 3x larger than the females. While stellar seals have a thick coarse fur that molts for about 4 weeks in the late summer or early fall, they also have blubber as their insulation. Like all pinnipeds, stellar sea lions have facial whiskers which are used to sense prey and feel their way underwater. With a diet consisting of a wide variety of fishes, an adult Stellar sea lion only requires 6% of its body weight. Their main predators are killer whales, sharks, and humans.
Northern Fur Seal Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 12-30 years Average Length: 4-10 feet Average Weight: Up to 700 pounds Endangered: Threatened
While classified as a “seal” there are distinct differences which you can use to tell them apart. Unlike the true seal, these seals have external earflaps providing keen hearing and use their front flippers for swimming (true seals use their hind flippers). They sleep on their backs while floating on the surface with their fins sticking out of the water also known as the “jug-handle” position. Mothers and pups have the unique ability to find each other using a familiar vocal call, even after years of separation!
Mola Mola aka Ocean Sun Fish Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 10 years Average Length: 11 feet Weight: Up to 10,000 pounds Endangered: No – Stable
Mola Mola’s also known as the Ocean Sun Fish could very well be known as the “half fish” since they are big flat, circular, and bullet-shaped, looking like half of a fish. With a silvery color and rough skin texture, they are heaviest of all the bony fish. Keep your eyes out for a Mola Mola as they bask in the sun near the surface or as they breach the surface up to 10 feet in the air to shake parasites off as they land. You can also spot them as they come to the surface when their bodies are infested with parasites in an attempt to have small fish or birds eat them off. A Mola Mola’s diet consists of jellyfish, small fish, zooplankton and algae. They are curious creatures and like to check people out, and will approach divers for a closer look.
Leatherback Turtle Season: Year-round Life Expectancy: 45 years Average Length: 7 feet Weight: Up to 2,000 pounds Endangered: Yes
A leatherback turtle’s name is derived from the look of its unique shell that is composed of a layer of thin, tough, rubbery skin, strengthened by thousands of tine bone plates. As the largest turtle on Earth, this population is declining rapidly and is currently on the endangered list. Consuming up to twice their body weight per day, leatherbacks feed on jellyfish as their main staple but also feed on fish, algae and floating seaweed with their delicate, scissor-like jaws. Diving deeper than any other turtle, leatherback’s can dive to depths of 4,200 feet and stay down for up to 85 minutes. These dinosaur-like reptiles have evolutionary roots that date back more than 100 million years!
With over 450 species of birds found in Monterey, it is a birders paradise. Not only do the coastal estuaries, rocky shores, and mud flats provide a haven for a huge diversity of birds, the ocean attracts many resident, migrant and wintering shorebirds (neo-tropical breeding ) as well. With travelling pelagic seabirds, you may see tens of thousands of birds feeding in the abundant waters of Monterey Bay on any one whale watching trip!
Of course with our resident California brown pelicans, albatross, sea ducks, cormorants and other birds, birding is spectacular year-round, especially from a boat where you can witness their feeding activities diving deep into the ocean and symbiotic relationships with sea life!
Cormorant Cormorants are a large water bird with thick, dark plumage with a patch of yellow skin surrounded by white underneath their bill, and green eyes. Out in the Monterey Bay, you may see any one of the following three species: Brandt’s cormorant (looks completely black from a distance), the double-breasted cormorant (black body with a yellow-orange beak) and the pelagic cormorant (shiny black with a very thin neck). Diving between 120 to 300 feet, cormorants are the deepest diving birds in Southern California. Cormorants are related to both the gannet and pelican.
Gulls With a total of 44 gull species in the world, gulls are incredibly fascinating and surprisingly smart. Since they spend most of the time around the ocean, they have special bill adaptations (a special pair of glands right above their eyes which is specifically designed to flush the salt from their systems through openings in the bill) that allow them to filter the salt out of water so they can drink it. They are opportunistic feeders, eating anything it can catch or scavenge, even engaging in cannibalism for survival. Seagulls’ intelligence can be seen by the clever way they drop hard-shelled mollusks onto rocks so they can break open and eat them, and creating behaviors such as stamping their feet in a group to imitate rainfall and trick earthworms to come to the surface!
Pelicans With a wingspan of over 6.5 feet, brown pelicans weigh up to 8 pounds and have a life expectancy of 40 years. With great force, brown pelicans can dive from as high as 100 feet in the air with body air sacs that cushion the shock as they hit the water! The higher the dive, the deeper their meal is under the water. The brown pelican is the only pelican that is a plunge diver. With the largest stretchable pouch of any bird in the world, this pelican can hold up to three gallons of water and fish. A brown pelican’s diet consists of northern anchovy, the Pacific sardine and the Pacific mackerel.
There are 31 species of Albatross around the world ranging in color from Black, White, Brown, Red, and Yellow, and every one of them is considered vulnerable, threatened or endangered. With the longest wingspan (up to 11 feet) of any bird including a bald eagle, an Albatross can reach speeds up to 40 mph. Rarely seen on land, Albatrosses are able to drink salt water and posses excellent hearing and smelling allowing them to find prey even in the dark. With a razor-sharp, hooked beak, their diet consists of fish, squid, krill, crabs, and other crustaceans. They have a symbiotic relationship with the Mola Mola (sunfish) and help them by eating off their parasites as they surface. Albatross can live a long life of up to 50 years.
Shearwaters Shearwaters, also known as sooty shearwaters, tend to concentrate around upwellings and over continental shelves, which is why they are so common in Monterey Bay. With a 40,000 mile round-trip migration, they head to the Southern Hemisphere on islands around Australia, New Zealand, and southern South America for breeding and back up to our waters for richer feeding sites. The Sooty Shearwater has a dark body with silvery under wings and is often found in groups of hundreds or thousands. If you see shearwaters, make sure to keep your eyes open for dolphins and whales as they tend to feed in the same area.
Sea Ducks There is a wide variety of sea ducks that make up 42% of all North American duck species. They include eiders (common, spectacled, Steller’s and king), scoters (black, surf and white-winged), mergansers (common, hooded and red-breasted) and goldeneyes (common and Barrow’s goldeneyes), along with buffleheads, long-tailed ducks and the flamboyant harlequin ducks. Sea ducks have a wide variety of magnificent and ornate colorings and are well adapted to sea life. Like the cormorant, sea ducks are excellent divers and can dive up to 180 feet deep in search of food.
Mergansers Mergansers are also known as goosanders or “sawbills” due to their long, narrow bill with serrated edges. Identifying factors include a red bill with a blackish upper ridge, and deep red legs and feet. They are among the largest of Sea Ducks species, tend to gather in small flocks rather than huge numbers, and prefer fresh water in all seasons. However, in the winter, they prefer bays, coastal estuaries, and harbors as their habitats. In addition to fish, Mergansers also eat Mussels, crustaceans, and other aquatic creatures.