It’s hard to make the mental shift between the Monterey of John Steinbeck’s novels, full of Depression-era desperation, and the prosperous modern town that welcomes coach loads of tourists. Today’s brightly painted streets around Fisherman’s Wharf and Cannery Row are a far cry from the streets, and the communities that lived on them, that I remember reading about.
The sardine canneries that were the backbone of the town’s economy, and which Steinbeck describes so evocatively, are long gone. The street Steinbeck so memorably called “…a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream”, has been transformed. The buildings now house restaurants, shops and hotels, all catering to the tourist industry.
Cannery Row was known to Steinbeck as Ocean View Avenue. The town changed the name to cash in on the fame of the eponymous novel, and judging by the number of visitors it was an inspired name change. The sardine factories all closed in the 30 years after World War Two, as the sardine population collapsed due to over-fishing. Until then it had been one of the most productive fisheries in the world.
Today, the town’s connection to the sea and its aquatic life is just as strong, but based more on scientific research and conservation. Monterey is home to one of the finest aquariums in the world, and there is a thriving industry of whale watching and dolphin spotting out in the magnificent Monterey Bay.
We arrived early and had a walk around the town before heading out on a whale watching boat. The waters around Monterey are home to passing Humpback Whales, Blue Whales, Grey Whales, Orcas and a variety of dolphins. We felt confident that we’d spot some whales on the four-hour boat trip. Worryingly, the person selling us the tickets made a point of saying we’d get a free trip if we failed to see any whales.
As we slowly made our way out of the harbour, we passed sea lions soaking up the sun and a few sea otters lounging around in the water. The weather was calm and sunny, perfect for a boat ride, but would it be perfect for whale watching? We soon spotted a handful of Common Dolphins but an hour into our trip there hadn’t been a whale sighting.
An on-board marine biologist describing how extraordinarily abundant in wildlife this bit of ocean was, and told us all about the giant sea creatures that so far eluded us. Suddenly, the boat changed course. The captain had spotted something and a ripple of excitement ran through the passengers. It wasn’t a whale, but something I thought as impressive, a pod of Risso’s Dolphins.
I’d never seen one before and they aren’t as frequently spotted as other dolphins. They don’t look much like dolphins I’ve seen before either, missing the typical ‘beak’. Their grey bodies are covered in unusual markings. These are caused by their main prey, squid, making them look suspiciously like they’ve all been tattooed.
We followed them for a while before a message was received that something else had been spotted in the distance. The boat set off and we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a vast group of Common Dolphins, which were racing through the water at high-speed. Our marine biologist estimated there were around a thousand dolphins in the group. Everywhere you looked there seemed to be dolphins. It was very exciting.
Soon enough our time was up and we headed back to Monterey without spotting a whale. We were given free tickets to go back another time, but to be honest I was quite thrilled by what we had seen.
We headed to Fisherman’s Wharf for some lunch and then went to the wonderful Monterey Bay Aquarium…