At a fish market in Peru, a young Kate Spencer walked up to a pelican that was as tall as her. The bird was often fed by fishermen and wasn’t afraid of people. In her early childhood there, she spent time by the water, looking at the sea stars on the rocks. After her family moved to Virginia, her curiosity turned toward the terrestrial. She grew up working in the garden and roaming the woods, turning over logs and examining the critters she found beneath them.
But it was while looking at a 13-inch black-and-white television set in the early ’70s that Spencer was first truly awestruck by nature. Jacques Cousteau was face to face with a goliath grouper – a fish that can grow to be 8 feet long, weigh up to 700 pounds and eats large fish, invertebrates and even small sharks – and it was just sitting there, looking him in the eyes. She was amazed that a being that large could interact with a human without attacking or running away. It was a moment that inspired her to eventually study biology at Smith College in Massachusetts, become a scientific illustrator and a naturalist and lead her to her current profession as owner and principal captain of Fast Raft Ocean Safaris.
Spencer takes people out for tours on the only civilian-owned PT1000 vessel in the country. It’s called Ranger and it’s a 33-foot rigid-hull inflatable boat designed for military use. The boat’s quiet engines and design – it rides low to the water and can carry only six passengers – provide a unique experience.
Her takeaway from the grayscale Cousteau impression, years later: You don’t need to put whales in tanks to be inspired by them, thanks both to the ability to observe them in nature, and to the power of our imaginations.
“You can come out here and see them,” she says. “If I can be inspired by a TV, our imaginations are more powerful than we know.”
Weekly: How long have you been working on boats?
Spencer: I’ve been working on boats here in Monterey since 2001. My first career I was a scientific illustrator at the Smithsonian and one of my freelance interests was illustrating tunas. I came out from the East Coast to work for the tuna researchers at Hopkins Marine Station and the Monterey Bay Aquarium and discovered there were whales here year-round.
How did you make the leap from scientific illustration to whale watching captain?
Several different things converged. It’s a lot steadier work than illustration, so I started working as a naturalist because I love being outside, and I love whales. I’ve always been interested in them. In fact, at the Smithsonian, I worked with a marine mammalogist there, but I was always working with bones and dead specimens. The chance to get out and see them alive and study their behavior as individuals is something I’d wanted to do since I was a child and heard whale recordings in a National Geographic 78. It’s a recording of humpbacks in Bermuda and I just fell in love with those sounds and wanted to know more about those beings – and here they are.
So this is a childhood dream come true. What’s that feel like?
It’s pretty wonderful. There so many things that I love, and there’s so much to love about nature and planet Earth.
A lot of people think that California is the best place on Earth, but I absolutely love the eastern forests too; you’ve got to love where you are. Fall in love with it and take care of it, wherever you are.
You started on this boat in 2014. How did that come about?
When I did whale research in Alaska, we were on a small Zodiac with a mothership. I loved the intimate experience of being on a small boat with the whales. Of course, that was under a research permit and you can’t get as close on here [for tourism purposes; the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act require viewers to be at least 100 yards – the length of a football field – away from whales].
When this boat showed up, I saw it from the big boat I was working on, and I was like, “I want to work on that thing.”
I wanted to get back down to being really intimate with the water, and this is as intimate as you can get without being in a kayak.
It’s an intimate experience, but I don’t use “up close and personal” around wildlife, because we need to give them space. On this boat, your sense of the space is that you’re closer. You can hear everything. My outboards are super, super quiet, you can’t even tell they’re running when they are idle. So you really have this experience where you can see, hear, smell.
What is your favorite part of this job and being on the ocean every day?
It’s kind of a toss-up between getting to see the animals so much and getting to know them as individuals and seeing the same ones come back year after year and getting to know their personalities. Whales really are individuals and they have society and individual quirks. I love getting to be able to identify them as individuals where you can spot them and go, “I know who that is” – and then to get beyond that to, “I know about this whale, I know this whale’s life story and this is what it was doing last year and look who it’s with now.” That kind of stuff is so cool.
Equally cool is showing that to people who have wanted to see whales their whole lives – or they’ve been coming forever, or they are little kids and it’s their dream. I mean, how lucky is that? I didn’t get to see a whale until I was 30.