For the next stage of our California Road Trip we headed South. From San Francisco we took Highway 1 over the Golden Gate Bridge, following the same route we had taken only two days previously on our bikes and started our journey down the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) along one of the most spectacular and dramatic scenic routes I have ever traveled.
The highway literally hugs the cliffs, winding along the coast and giving you open views of the Pacific and the beaches below. There are frequent pull off points for cars and it is almost impossible to avoid stopping to take a picture whenever you can and to just stand and stare at the view. Brought up near the coast in Norfolk, I am naturally drawn to the sea but this was like nothing I had ever seen. It is overwhelmingly beautiful.
As well as viewing spots to take photographs, there are also many places to park and enjoy a picnic with seating areas looking out to the Ocean, in fact I challenge anyone to find a finer place to eat a sandwich. Our destination was Carmel which allowing for stops along the route was approximately a 3 hour drive. Carmel is a town in Monterey County, well known for its famous mayor Clint Eastwood and its multitude of art galleries. In fact there are reported to be 100 in the town itself and with such stunning scenery to inspire them it is not hard to see why.
A charming oddity of the town is that it is illegal to wear high heels on the cobbled pavements, which made me smile as the town, although small is full of designer boutiques and perfectly coiffured ladies walking their picture perfect dogs along the streets and would in my opinion seem the ideal place to take a stroll in a pair of Manolo's.
Carmel is, however, a convenient spot for visiting the more touristy town of Monterey for a spot of whale watching which is why we were there. Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey is home to various whale watching tours but a keen diver Mr MoT had booked in advance with Monterey Bay Whale Watch as the trips are conducted by experienced marine biologists.
Despite my love for being near the sea, I am not keen on boats and tend to avoid them at all costs, so on the day of the trip I was feeling mildly nervous. My husband kept assuring me it would be fine whilst pointing out that the sea was like a "mill pond" so there really was nothing to be afraid of. However, that was the bit of the sea that we could see immediately in front of us, you didn't need to be a brain surgeon to work out that the bit with the whales in would not be like that. Informed by the shore staff that it was "choppy" on the day of our trip we took motion sickness tablets and prepared to board.
Anyone prone to sea sickness will tell you that the only place to be is at the back of the boat with your eyes on the horizon and that is where I sat. The boat was small in comparison to the others we had seen in the harbour yet I had been assured that a single hulled boat in choppy waters is better for managing the nausea. We were soon to find out.
As we left the harbour we were surrounded by sea lions basking in the sunlight on the piers and old abandoned boats in the harbour and as we headed out to sea the cacophany of their barks rang in our ears. As promised it was choppy. In fact I had to avoid looking at the swell of the waves to maintain my calm and all this whilst being quizzed by a friendly group of Californians on Brexit! Nothing like taking your mind of it I suppose.
Every now and then the skipper would kill the engines as we were confronted by a huge wave and we would all whoop with delight as we went up and down as if on a roller coaster. A lovely lady who spends all her spare time on whale trips kept regaling me with tales of her previous whale watching trip in the Antarctic which was apparently alot calmer. I am sure she meant well!!
After about an hour and a half of heading out beyond the headlands of Santa Cruz, we stopped. It was at this point that many passengers hit by the sudden stillness after the continual swell, promptly dashed to the back of the boat for a quick chunder. This included Teen 2 who encouraged by her father had been enthusiastically enjoying the views from the front of the boat which clearly took the brunt of the ferocity of the waves. Sickness over it was time to take in the view.
Shouts rang out around the boat "Whale 2 o''clock" "Dolphins 7 o'clock" this being the agreed language for us all to alert each other to any sightings rather than "Over there!" It was a tried and tested method and it worked.
There are two seasons for whale watching in Monterey Bay, mid-December through mid-April to see gray whales, dolphins and killer whales migrating, or alternatively mid-April through mid-December to see humpback whales, blue whales, dolphins and killer whales. So October was the right time of the year for whale sightings but nevertheless as with anything there are no guarantees. We were lucky. Not only did we see schools of dolphins jumping in the water we saw what we had all paid for really a whale and not just one, several. In fact on the day of our trip the guide and biologist recorded a total of 12 humpback whales.
What you see varies obviously, but the first indication is a rainbow spout of water as the whale prepares to surface then it might be its back you glimpse or its tail as it dives down. On our trip, however, we were also lucky enough to see a bait ball. This is when fish swarm in a tightly packed spherical formation, in a last ditch attempt to defend themselves from predators. It was a spectacular sight and was followed by the fish looking as if they were jumping out of the water as the whales came up from underneath with open mouths to feed. It was spectacular.
Even Teen 1 who spent the early part of the journey terrified that we would overturn and be consumed by sharks and is rarely in awe of anything in the natural world, was rendered speechless and exclaimed afterwards that "This is the kind of thing you only see on the telly!" It really was that good.
The whale trips vary in length. We booked a 4 hour tour which with an hour and a half there and back left us with an hour just drifting out at sea spotting the whales. Sitting on a relatively small boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean watching whales was surreal and was without doubt one of the most incredible experiences for all of us and one we will never forget for sure.
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