Monday, May 4, 2015

Santa Cruz, Part 2--Giants

I keep getting distracted! What with moving, spring, wildflowers and baby birds, it's hard to stay focused. Now, where was I? Oh yes, back to California and the Giants.

Our next adventure was one I had been nervously excited about for months. My mom booked us a cruise on a Whale Watching boat on the Monterey Bay! The thought of being out where the whales were moving and feeding was thrilling and I was really excited about getting some good photos. What made me nervous was that I had gone whale watching once before (in Hawaii) and it was a disaster. I got incredibly seasick. Every time the catamaran stopped to watch the whales, I got sick. The rest of the passengers oohed and ahhed at whale antics, but I didn't see anything. I'm sure my fellow passengers just loved having this person retching off the back of the boat for an entire afternoon. It makes me queazy just recalling. Anyway, I had mostly avoided ocean adventures since then. So as cool as this trip sounded, you can understand my trepidation. But it seemed like an opportunity of a lifetime, one I would really regret missing, so I followed all the preparatory instructions and I am happy to report that I felt nothing but elation! In fact, it was one of the neatest experiences I've ever had. So I'm going to take a lesson from this and try not to avoid things in the future because of a past bad experience.

Away we drove, onward to our great adventure. The ocean air was brisk and cool as we passed Sea Lions and Otters in the harbor. Pelagic Cormorants, with amethyst blue eyes perched on the piers. Seabirds like Rhinoceros Auklets, Ancient Muralettes and Murres swam and flew alongside of the boat. The crew told us that they were following reports from other boats of whale sightings as we headed out into the bay. About 20 minutes away from shore we saw large flocks of seagulls and pelicans circling and landing on the water. Suddenly, we saw huge pods of dolphins in the distance. There were hundreds of them and they were so active and excited that the water looked like it was boiling! There must have been a huge school of fish and lots of great food below. Some of the dolphins swam alongside the boat. They were so fast and sleek! I had a very hard time trying to aim my camera. The boat was moving forward, as well as rocking with the waves, and the dolphins were all over the place. I never knew just where to focus, so I just told myself, keep snapping! I filled an entire memory card and had to toss about half of the photos.

Sea Lions Soaking up Sun

Sea Otters, Holding Flippers

Pelagic Cormorants (See the Eyes?)

Rhinoceros Auklets

Ancient Muralette


Dolphins Everywhere!

Dolphins Racing with the Boat

And then came the whales. It was unbelievable. At first we saw distant spouts and sprays, then the the tails. The boat cruised closer and then we saw multiple backs and tails and spouts, all of Humpback whales.  I have no idea how many we saw. It's hard to count them because more than one part can stick out of the water at one time! They are huge, though it is hard to really understand how huge because you can't see the whole whale. According to Wikipedia, adults are from 39-52 feet long and can weigh 75,000 pounds. Humpback Whales come to the Monterrey Bay to feed in the winter and there can be several hundred in the bay at one time. They seemed completely gentle and content and the boat captain turned off the motor so we could just float near them and listen. The sound of a whale breathing is unforgettable. You could sometimes spot a whale by it's spray, and sometimes by the clear circular tracks they left in the water when they came up for a breath. (You can see what I mean from the photo). We never saw a whale jump or breach. We heard that a cruise the day before had seen some amazing acrobatics. But the tails and spouts were enough for me. I felt so lucky for having the opportunity to view these spectacular giants up close, and was very thankful for a powerful telephoto lens.

Whale Spout

Whale Tail

"Circles" in the Water From Surfacing
After a couple of hours of stopping and watching whales in several locations, the cruise wound down and we headed back to the harbor, still floating from the rush of seeing all these magnificent sea mammals. On the way back, we passed seabirds like Pelicans, Western Grebes and Heermann's Gulls and the captain pointed out a beautiful Peregrine Falcon that had taken up residence near the busy waterway. We learned that in the 1970's there were only 5 pairs of Peregrines in all of California, mostly due to DDT poisoning. According to the California Audubon website, protection from the Endangered Species act has brought that number up to 300 breeding sites, and we were looking at one very healthy specimen. Such a hopeful way to end a glorious expedition.

Western Grebe

Heermann's Gull

Peregrine Falcon
Continuing with the theme of the California Giants, a few days later we drove up into the Santa Cruz mountains to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park to see some Giant Redwoods. The trees are magnificent. They are so tall that I found it very difficult to take a photo with an entire tree in the frame. My smart husband figured out that you could make it work by taking a panoramic photo, spanning slowly from bottom to top. There is a little distortion, but you really get the feeling of the trees towering overhead. The tall trees don't let much light shine down through to the forest floor, so the forest was damp and dark with many varieties of moss, ferns and fungus. The ancient trees--some as many as 1400-1800 years old--muffle surrounding sound and walking among them feels solemn and sacred, as though you are in a chapel or sanctuary.

Giant Redwoods

The park was busy and close to the city so we didn't see much in the way of wildlife, though signs warned us about Mountain Lions. We did find a single, huge yellow Banana Slug on a fence post. The school mascot for UCSC, these day-glo giants can grow as big as 9 inches long! I was happy to see one during our trip out West and bought a Banana Slug Christmas ornament from the gift shop as a memento.

I Wish...

Banana Slug

For our last adventure we drove a very short way up the coast to Davenport and found tidal pools with Anemones and Mussels. No giants that day, unless you count the tall sea cliffs, but we saw West Coast species such as California Ground Squirrels, Black Phoebes, and a first for me--a Say's Phoebe.


Tidal Pool Anemone


California Ground Squirrel (There's Another in the rocks Behind This One)

Black Phoebe

Say's Phoebe
After a lovely week together, we wrapped up our family reunion and scattered again to our homes all over the country. I had a wonderful time in California, but I always end a trip wishing I could see and experience more. Santa Cruz is a wonderful place to explore and there is a lot more of California to see. Luckily for me, I have family that will draw me back again. And now that I know I can deal with ocean adventures, maybe we can see some more whales! Condors, anyone?


  1. Beautiful photos and a very informative narration. The whale shots bring us memories of seeing just the same views while kayaking near the west side of Vancouver Island. John and Janet

  2. I hope to go on another similar trip next time we visit my mom. Now that I know I can do it, I'm ready for more!