Winter offers one of the best opportunities to whale watch on Monterey Bay.

True Tails: Risso’s dolphins (right) often move in packs of more than 100; recently a humpback (left) gave Sea Wolf II a friendly rub.

In 2005, near the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, a group of divers spent an hour freeing a 50-foot humpback whale from a tangle of crab trap lines. When the whale was finally freed, it nuzzled each of the divers who had been cutting the lines.

“It felt to me like it was thanking us, knowing that it was free and that we had helped it,” one of the rescuers told the San Francisco Chronicle.

It’s stories like these that keep us perpetually intrigued and mystified with these intelligent creatures, whose family includes the largest animal on the planet. And Monterey Bay is one of the best spots in the world to encounter one of these remarkable mammals in person.

It’s 9am on a Saturday when I board the Sea Wolf II, a vessel that ventures out to watch whales everyday from the Monterey Bay Whale Watch Center located on Fisherman’s Wharf #1.

The morning sky presents a brilliant blue canopy above the choppy, emerald bay. There are about 25 people aboard the boat, all anticipating an up-close encounter with one of these majestic beasts.

“There is something to see 365 days of the year,” Captain Richard Ternullo ensures.

Humpback whales are prevalent in the area through the beginning of December, and gray whales are most common throughout the winter and spring. This past summer an unprecedented number of humpbacks fed in Monterey Bay. Though the humpbacks have, for the most part, already migrated to Mexico, several stragglers feeding on anchovies and sardines remain. The presence of both species makes wintertime in Monterey Bay as good a time for whale watching as any other season of the year.

We lift anchor and set out into the open bay past the barking California sea lions and the rows of docked ships.

“I encourage anyone who is going to get sick to do so off the back of the boat,” the ship’s naturalist Paul Gallup announces over the loudspeaker.

Gallup, a retired Federal Aviation Administration employee, has been a deckhand for two years and recently received his captain’s license. As a naturalist, he calls out all the birds and sea creatures encountered on the adventure and answers marine biology questions.

“Whale watching is whale searching,” he says. Soon he is pointing out the Hermann’s gull and the brown pelican, both native to Monterey.

After the first couple hours, white caps persist and the wind whips briskly as we near the halfway point to Moss Landing. The Santa Cruz Boardwalk becomes visible in the distance.

Fearing the possibility of seasickness, I inconspicuously cop a couple of ginger candies from one of the deckhands.

Gallup and Ternullo continue to train their binoculars on the vast waters, searching for the slightest indication that a whale is near.

“We got blows at 12 o’clock,” Gallup says.

Ternullo turns off the boat’s engine. Two hundred yards in front of the boat, two spouts of water shoot up intermittently with a big sigh-like sound, releasing misty spouts as tall as a man.

We circle the whales, never coming closer than 100 yards from them. Utter silence descends– cracked only by the lapping waves– as everyone aboard the boat huddles to one side, cameras out, mouths open.

The spouts are followed by a quick glimpse of the whale’s body before it eases smoothly back into the water and out of sight. The two humpback whales repeat these actions five times, then prepare to plummet hundreds of feet into the canyon to feed, lifting their tails, or flukes, straight up.

In the process, their combination of grace and girth collaborate in leaving an entire boat of people newly appreciative of whales, a bigger world and their own humble human place in it.

After watching the humpbacks repeat their breathing cycle a few times, Ternullo turns the engine back on and heads back towards Monterey Bay. On the way, Gallup spots a few more spouts– and this time, about seven humpbacks can be seen feeding. Apparently the ample amount of food has encouraged a significant number of whales to stick around.

After circling the second group of humpbacks, we continue on our way. Gallup says there is a good chance that we will also run into some dolphins. And 5 miles from shore, we have more than just a simple dolphin encounter. More than 200 Risso’s dolphins swarm around the boat, skipping through the water with an occasional breach up and out. One of the larger members of the dolphin family– they range from 10-12 feet in length– Risso’s are fairly common in Monterey Bay. But there is nothing that feels common about watching scores of their sleek bodies race our motor through the ocean’s surges on a unseasonably beautiful morning.

After the boat is docked Gallup and Ternullo are already excited to go back out on their next trip, which departs in an hour.

“If I could have,” Gallup says, “I would have been doing this for my entire life.”

Whale watching trips run at 10am and 1:30pm every Mon-Fri, and 7am, 10am and 1:30pm Sat-Sun from Dec. 13-April 30. Monterey Bay Whale Watch, 84 Fisherman’s Wharf, Monterey. $34/adults; $23/child. 375-4658.

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