A diverse, if slightly desultory-looking crowd gathers at the back of Randy’s Fishing Trips awaiting the imminent arrival of a date with destiny. A Hindu woman, eyes battened down by too much kohl, an Englishman, a Scot and a handful of Americans avoid each other’s gaze, all eyes are on a brown baby pelican, an unwitting cynosure, being fed anchovies by a teenager in high heels in a daily ritual that fixes trippers as they loll awkwardly, hoping for the next boat.
Sanctuary comes in late and starts offloading. Heidi, the former captain but happily demoted for the day as partner Steph takes over the wheelhouse, gives the pep talk. There is a lot said about sea sickness; a recent bowl of clam chowder now seems foolhardy.
Two hours earlier, at Monterey’s tourism office, the chance of sighting any whales had looked slim. October is the end of season, they said, and any trips would have to have left by 9am. A compensatory clam chowder seems no bad thing, but the news on Fisherman’s Wharf is hopeful: a number of boats are out and will be going out again.
Thirty years earlier, in unflattering grey flannels, I stood and craned my neck to gawp at a model of the largest creature on earth, suspended from the ceiling of London’s Natural History Museum. The blue whale held endless fascination due to its sheer size and power, gentle intelligence and unwitting defiance of current politically correct ‘small is beautiful’ musings.
Balaenoptera musculus once grew to 110ft long and is the largest mammal mankind has ever seen, but chances of spotting one are remote. Whalers slaughtered the biggest, leaving a decimated population of 80-footers. Around ten–25,000 remain, but innate shyness and awareness of man’s predation combine to keep this great creature out of sight.
But not today. Not far out to sea, we are told, a blue whale was briefly spotted during the previous three-hour cruise and Heidi and Steph, a lean moustachioed former private eye and leg amputee, are eager to get back out. We are lucky and we know it. Monterey Bay is more likely to yield orcas, humpbacks or minkes at this time of year in what is America’s largest marine sanctuary in an underwater fissure the size of the Grand Canyon.
As we pile down the wharf’s wooden steps and on to Monterey’s only non-fishing, non-smoking whale-watching boat, the port’s resident pelicans line up to watch in silence. Mute sentinels flown in from pre-history. In the near distance, a small army of barking sea lions that hangs around hopefully at the base of the Monterey fishing Company, or on the lone rocks Sanctuary circumnavigates on her passage from the harbour to the open sea.
Six of us race for the best views lunging, politely, for the makeshift fibreglass seats outside the wheelhouse and already pulling on coats to beat the coming spray. Unusually, it is the Germans who wind up sitting on the deck, But no-one’s complaining for there is little to complain about. On a cloudless autumn day, California’s central coast is easy on the eye.
As giant trees gave way to plains and dunes, Steinbeck’s description of an unforgiving life on the land appeared before our eyes.
Monterey itself is the stereotypical California blonde: lissom, tanned and healthy but with too much false front for some. Fisherman’s Wharf is the place for tacky souvenirs and good eating. Sanctuary seems happy to leave it all behind and as the land recedes, the vista of the Pacific widens to embrace, sun, sea and sky. On the way out to the deep waters, we pass Lover’s Point. It says, says Steph, great on a moonlit night with a bottle of wine and a lover, or two bottles of wine and someone you just met.
Cannery Row, once the sardine capital of the world and famous thanks to the novel of the same name by John Steinbeck, comes up on the port side looking redundant and sad. As we leave the last rocky outcrop, the swell of the water becomes more violent, showering us with spray and the bonhomie of shared experience. Some of us even let out the odd yelp. It seems the right thing to do, a communal language of awe on what should be the memory of a lifetime. But spontaneity breaks through any remaining reserve when, standing above the wheelhouse, Heidi screams out the first sighting.
There, almost straight in front of us, and a quarter of a mile in the distance, a misty plume of water and air rises from the surface of the water. My stomach turns, the hunt is on. C, my partner, grabs her camera, but is thrown back as Steph speeds Sanctuary on its way.
Ahead of us, Magnum Force is nearer the whale but with a name like that perhaps shouldn’t be. Even Clint Eastwood, who lives a stone’s throw away in Carmel, might have misgivings about this great peaceful leviathan being tracked by a boat named after violence. Sanctuary slows, keeping a respectful distance. Whales should never be approached head on or too close.
Meanwhile, this 80-footer descends into the depths of the canyon in search of krill and we wait, like Dreyfuss, Shaw and Scheider in some scene from Jaws to see what it will do next. Years ago, blue whales numbered around 200,000, but despite whaling laws, numbers have never recovered. Nowadays, they usually roam in pairs, toothless warriors, filtering four tons of small crustaceans daily to feed a 2,000-pound heart.
Time ticks on. Eleven minutes go by before Heidi screams again, pointing 100 metres out as balaenoptera musculus betrays itself with a luminous blue-green shimmer beneath the waves. The whale teases us with an extended glimpse of its liver-coloured back and a disproportionately small dorsal fin, then dives again.
Sanctuary turns full circle as our experienced skippers accurately predict the location of the next sighting. Thirteen minutes pass as our quarry pops up on the port side, tantalisingly close. A second dive still fails to show us its gigantic tail. Magnum Force heads in, leaving the ocean free of objects, the mighty blue whale comes up for another brief sojourn and a flash of cameras, then dives once more, soon to head for the warmer climes of Costa Rica for the winter. All that is left is a footprint of smooth water that sits oddly, a skin of cold coffee, on the sea.
In a second, the experience of a lifetime is over, and our earlier shrieks give way to a ringing, religious silence, for there is little to be said. Any talk is rendered superfluous, the noise of man meaningless in the face of nature. Finally, Sanctuary heads home and a fond fatigue washes away years of worry. If only for a while.
In the coming months, migrating grey whales will dodge whalers in their journey from Alaska to the lagoons of Baja, California and our blue whale will be long gone. Heading inland, a line of five pelicans, awkward and ugly on land, pass us with a grace that would have seemed impossible just hours earlier.
Highway one, the Pacific Coast road, mile after mile of undulating blacktop from San Francisco to Los Angeles. We picked it up after joining the 17 from Los Gatos, near San Jose and enjoyed the snaking climb that skirted redwood country. It is a fine journey for a driver new to the US, covering an array of terrain over the course of 90 minutes and allowing an unhurried look into an unchanged world. As giant trees gave way to plains and dunes, Steinbeck’s description of an unforgiving life on the land appeared before our eyes.
First came the fields and row after row of artichokes; then came the workers, bent over the plants, indigent labour trying to make it in a country that once seemed to offer an infinity of opportunity, where demand rules and consumption is king. Add an old bus, something out of The Sixties, and we’re straight into The Grapes of Wrath.
But as the half-moon bay of Monterey comes into view, deeply-held impressions of a land and its people are surrendered for the sheer magnificence of the Pacific and a world that seems a million miles away from life on terra firma.
It is not hard to see why Steinbeck, a local boy, loved this place despite his depiction of the harshness meted out to some. As we drive back to the city, I think about the blue whale and a part of me shrinks behind the wheel of the rented Suzuki, a small boy from another life lucky enough to see a dream come true.
For at last he can lower his head in the knowledge that unlike in the museum, whales do not come down from out of the sky.
Copyright Simon Heathcote.