Sharing the Whales with the Local World

Kate’s Article on Whale Watching Appears in the Monterey County Weekly

I want local people in the Monterey Bay to know that the whales they’ve been hearing about this summer are still here, and that whale watching is not just for tourists. School is back in session and what better experiential learning opportunity is there than seeing the biggest animals ever to have lived on Earth, first-hand? My opinion piece inviting locals to venture onto the ocean appears in the “Local Spin” column in the August 26, 2010 issue of the Monterey County Weekly.

Mark Anderson, one of the editors of the Monterey County Weekly, was on my whale watch a few weeks ago. He knows me from my public poetry readings as Pacific Grove’s Poet in Residence back in 2004–2006 and was curious what I’d have to say about whales, beyond my usual narration on the boat.

Writing this piece required a difficult cognitive shift from the factual reporting and encouraging directing (“Look left!”) I do on the microphone. The audience for this free paper is broader than the self-selecting subset that pays to go on a marine excursion. My goal was to inspire people who might not normally consider whale watching to give it a try. I had to show the value of opening oneself to an unfamiliar experience, one that many people know can induce some very uncomfortable side-effects. Quoting actual happy guests from recent trips was the ticket.

I’m glad for the chance to share my point of view, and hope it brings some new kids, of all ages, out to marvel at the whales.

Read my piece, “More Than a Fluke: Big Lessons from Schooling with the Whales” on the Weekly site here.


More Than a Fluke

Big lessons from schooling with the whales in Monterey Bay.

By Kate Spencer

Thursday, August 26, 2010

One father of three from France said, “For you, this is everyday. For us, it is magic.” A woman from Sacramento nervously admitted she’d never been on the ocean before. Once she saw three blue whales, she was near tears with joy: “They’re so huge. I’m just soaking it up.”

Hundreds of people who never thought they would see a blue whale are fulfilling that lifelong dream daily after a short cruise on Monterey Bay’s whale watch fleet.

Blue whales and humpbacks summer here every year, but this season an unusually good krill bloom has brought a consistent group of blue whales feeding close to our shore. Widespread publicity has brought crowds of watchers from all over California and beyond since early July.

The whale-watching experience reveals a lot about our human selves. As one of the on-board marine naturalists for Monterey Bay Whale Watch (375-4650, with Nancy Black, I’ve witnessed the delight and even reverence of many who are seeing Earth’s most massive animal of all time. Whales impress almost everyone who’s old enough to understand that the 30-foot column of steam and the long, low back belong to an enormous submerged animal. Choruses of cheers ring out when the graceful humpbacks arch their tails up into the air. If a whale breaches or swims near the boat, the crowd goes wild.

Experienced nature-watchers stand out because they are dressed for the cold, are patient with the process of searching out sightings and seem content to watch whatever the animals are doing.

One common question indicates that a family has spent more time at zoos and Sea World than observing wildlife: “Why aren’t the whales (or dolphins) jumping?” While marine parks claim to be educating the public and inspiring conservation, there is an underlying message that the captive animals are happy and that their lives are enhanced by interactions with their trainers. People who’ve bought into that justification may take longer to realize that wild animals have rich lives of their own and are not there to perform for us. I like to explain that kids don’t do cartwheels all day long, and the whales need time to rest, eat and travel too.


Some visitors wrestle with the idea of humankind conquering nature. A man from Chicago once fumed that all we saw were a pod of killer whales, saying “I can see those in Orlando.” He wanted a humpback. While he clearly didn’t grasp the sheer wildness of free-living orcas – the ocean’s top predator, 10 times bigger than a polar bear – maybe he wanted to see something just too utterly large to tame.

The terrific video available these days also changes how people look at whales. Kids who have the greatest access to digital media have some of the shortest attention spans among whale watchers. YouTube now makes it possible to search for the most interesting 15 seconds of a breaching whale video, so why be bored? Teenagers sometimes retreat into their iPods or texting while the best action of the day is happening starboard.

There are some things you can’t get from even HD video, though. Boat-based whale-watching allows a true view of the size of the whales, a window into their unedited lives, and the possibility of experiencing our authentic relationship with the wild.

Connecting with nature is the best way to inspire children to grow up committed to conservation, according to educator David Sobel, author of Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education. It’s crucial to give children a chance to build a lasting, nourishing love of the wild before they are burdened with worries about overwhelming environmental problems. Observing nature can also help lengthen attention spans and combat digital addiction.

For adults, too, there is nothing like spending time in the wilderness beyond human artifice to restore awe. We need these glimpses of recovering endangered species to counteract the flood of negative information about climate change and the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster.

Now that we’ve stopped hunting whales in U.S. waters, whales even seek out interactions with us. Blue whales mostly ignore us, but humpbacks sometimes approach our boats and roll to look at the people. And in Baja California, some gray whales lead their calves over to small boats to be petted.

Bringing children and friends whale-watching might be one of the best things you can do to help humanity toward a more restored relationship with nature. When we see whales and dolphins in their native ocean, nursing their calves and negotiating their social lives, we know that some things are going right in the world. The big, ancient animals are still swimming.

KATE SPENCER is a marine life artist, naturalist, and former Pacific Grove poet-in-residence: For more photos and video from the summer’s whale trips, visit

Curious Whale Sprays Onlookers

We nicknamed the whale Propellor because there is a line of welts down its back and a gouge in its side, obviously from close contact with a small boat’s propellor. It’s all healed, and it certainly doesn’t deter this strong adult Humpback Whale from approaching large whale-watching boats and swimming around them repeatedly. It apparently just likes boats — that’s probably how it got that wound in the first place.

When Propellor showed up in Monterey Bay in July, there were several days where many whale watch tours were treated to exceptionally close encounters of the large kind. Here is a video I shot while narrating one of Propellor’s visits to the Sea Wolf II. I’m upstairs, looking down at the guests cramming the rail to get close to this amazing, sentient visitor. One person at the rail has a particularly large Canon lens. He’s Daniel Bianchetta, a local photographer who comes out often with Monterey Bay Whale Watch, the company I guide for. You can see some of his stunning photographs, including a Humpback Whale’s eye, at under Liquid Nature.