Monterey, California: A photographer’s Perspective

orca pod coming in for more attacks

I traveled to Monterey California with a friend of mine who is a great photographer. We both love whales and were feeling quite restless, so about 6 months ago, we planned a long weekend trip, which we took last week.

The following is the summary of our adventure.

Adaptable and Flexible are necessary for any traveler.

In order to travel today, it is important to remain adaptable, flexible, have a good sense of humor and patience.

Between the two of us, we faced:

  • route changes
    (Michelle’s non-stop flight was terminated and she had to change her flights)
  • multiple weather issues
    (Denver was expecting snow, so I flew in the night before and stayed in a hotel and THEN, flying into Monterey – as we were landing, the pilot had to pull up and cancel the landing because Monterey closed the airport due to bad conditions and we landed in San Jose instead),
  • aircraft maintenance delays
    I was given an extra 4 hours in Denver on my way home because of an aircraft maintenance issue. It was great because I was able to have dinner with my college friend who lives in the area.

We had to pivot multiple times. Communication and being nice made all the difference.

And it was definitely worth it!

Day 1: Please pass me a “barf” bag – um, maybe better make that 10 bags

I easily get motion sick (small airplanes and big waves on a cruise ship can easily do me in, I have even gotten sick on a helicopter) so I purchased a “relief band” to try and help alleviate that problem.   This was going to be my first time using it.

When we arrived at check-in, they had a little sign up that said to take motion sickness pills that day.   I thought, ah..it’s only a 4-hour trip, I want to see how well the band does – it had gotten great reviews.

As we were getting our pre-briefing on the doc, the staff went on and on and on about motion sickness – so I decided to also take motion sickness medication.

After a little while on the water,  we found a pod of orca.

By this point, many people were getting seasick.

I was doing ok – not great but not completely taken over yet by the motion until I put my camera up and started looking thru the viewfinder.

The swells were so tall, to steal Michelle’s words – it seemed like a 30’ wall of water was coming right at us.    Big ships were disappearing from the swells – you couldn’t look at the horizon – it was there one minute and completely gone within seconds.

At one point the boat was surrounded by orcas, I didn’t see them.

I heard the crew talking about orcas at 1:00, 11:00, oh now they are at 5:00.

I didn’t see them because I was in the back of the boat throwing up – for 2.5 hours.  Probably didn’t use 10 throw-up bags, but it was pretty close.  I’ll spare you the details of how horrible I felt and the knots in my stomach.

At the time, I swore I would NEVER EVER get on a boat again!  Yea, it was THAT  bad.

In time, everyone (and I mean that literally, not figuratively) on the ship succumbed to seasickness except the crew.   They actually brought us back early.

Once on land, things got a little bit better.   We sat in the car – parked and not moving for about 45 minutes and ate our lunch that we had packed.

Afterward, we took the beautiful 17-mile drive.  The coastline is stunning and the waves were definitely active!   I was still not feeling great, so I mostly just enjoyed with my eyes and not my camera.

 

At one stop, we saw sea lions playing in the waves.   It looked like they were surfing.   It was so much fun to watch them.  They were too far to photograph, but I was able to get these sea lions playing in the water and resting on the bank.

Sea lions swimming on 17 mile drive

Day 2:  There is NO WAY in Hades, I’m getting back on the boat with bad seas!  How about some cute otters instead?

The next morning, we woke up early and went back down to the docks to take an 8-hour whale watch trip.

When we got there, we asked about the seas and were told they weren’t as bad as yesterday, but they were still bad.    The forecast said they would get better thru the week.    They also told us we should take a motion sickness pill at night before bed and then again in the morning.

So, we decided to skip the 8-hour boat trip.  (And we found out later, that we didn’t miss anything !)

Instead, we went up to Elkhorn Slough.

We were able to arrange a private boat trip with Monterey Eco Tours.    They have an amazing electric boat.   The boat was so quiet we didn’t even know it was running – and there were no vibrations and no diesel smell!

Their knowledge about the Slough was great and we learned a lot about the surrounding areas.   I highly recommend them if you are in Monterey for a trip!

We spent over 1.5 hours photographing birds, otters, and seals.

Seals on a pier wet sea otter portrait Mama and baby sea otter Sea lion biting a shell 2 adult otters hanging out Sea lions and babies resting on a beach panorama of a baby and mama sea otter

Day 3:  Orcas have a successful hunt

Fully drugged up with anti-sea sickness medication, we went on the 8-hour whale trip with Monterey Bay Whale Watch.

sea otter baby resting on mama

We saw some sea lions, otter, and Rizzo’s dolphins as we left Fisherman’s Wharf.

 

 

We quickly got a call that one of their other boats had found orcas hunting.   This boat had a Netflix crew on board.

Orcas come into this area during this time of year to hunt baby Gray Whales.   Gray whales migrate from Mexico to Alaska in late April and May and the orcas hunt the babies.

Gray Whale adults can reach 39 feet in length and reach about 60,000 pounds.    They calf in the Mexico warm waters and then return to Alaska in the spring and summer to feed.

Normally, they will stay in shallow water because it is safer for them.   In this case, for an unknown reason, the mama whale was in water that went to a depth of 600 feet.   A very dangerous location for the baby.

Orcas, known as killer whales, are not actually whales.   They are dolphins.   They are called killer whales because they kill whales.   Most of the sub-species of orca feed on mammals – which can include seals, sea lions, baby whales, and sharks.   The orcas known as resident orcas (found in the San Juan Islands) only feed on salmon.

It was hard to see and understand what was going on.   There were 5 pods of orcas all making the attack.    The goal of the orcas is to separate the baby from the mama and then drown it.

orcas on the hunt gray whale attack orca attack on gray whale orca tries to separate the gray whale calf gray whale baby spewing blood orca attacking the gray whale orca pod coming in for more attacks

The baby Gray Whale gets on the mama’s back to stay safe.   The 5 pods of orcas took turns ramming the mother underwater.    We couldn’t really see this from the boat (later I did see some drone footage).  And it was even hard seeing and understanding what was happening at the time.

I know that in nature, one animal must die so that the predator can survive, but it is still very difficult for me to watch.   Seeing both animals fighting for survival.    It’s hard.

At least in the water, we couldn’t see the brutality of the attack.   We couldn’t hear the screams or see the panic – until looking at the pictures – when I could see the baby laying on the mama’s back with blood spewing from its mouth.

It took about 1.75 hours for the orcas to separate the baby and then drown it.   The mama Gray Whale, very beat up from the repeated attacks, swam in the area for a little while and then departed as there was nothing more she could do to save her baby.

It is not uncommon for the orcas to breach and jump (we would call it celebrate) after a kill, but these orcas did not do that.    The naturalist on the boat said it was because they didn’t want the Humpback Whales to see them.   It is a common practice for Humpback Whales to protect the Grey Whales and other mammals from attack.   Even after the baby was dead, if Humpback Whales had come into the area, they would have “saved” the deceased baby and not allowed the orcas to feed.

I am in the process of creating a narrated video of the event but it will take me a while to finish it.   It will be posted on my youtube channel when it is complete.

The baby was about 14′ long and will feed many marine animals.   Adult orcas are 16-24′.

These two last pictures were after the Gray Whale Calf had succumbed to the attack.

Male orca female orca in the water

Day 4:  Orcas have a big dinner of baby Gray Whale

Not knowing how the seas would be, I medicated again the night before and in the morning.

I am not a “pill popper” and medication has a huge effect on me.  I was really feeling the fatigue from the pills.

As soon as everyone was boarded, we headed to the site of the kill from the previous day.

Several pods of orcas were in the area feeding from the baby whale carcass.   The whales will feed from the surface and will also then pull the carcass down and feed from underwater.

There was a lot of porpoising (when the whales were just swimming) and we were pretty much surrounded by whales all day.

We had some close encounters with the whales swimming under our vessel and all around.

There were 2 kayakers and it was really sad to see them chasing after the whales.

Orca spy hopping near the carcass of a baby gray whale Orcas swimming orca diving with his tail in the airSummary of the trip

I consider this trip quite an adventure.

Due to Covid, the aquarium was closed and most of the restaurants had a wait because of the limited capacity.   The stores on Fisherman’s Wharf were open and I will admit, we visited a few of the candy shops for saltwater taffy.

I actually prefer watching Humpback Whales over Orcas.   I think they are more active and engaging to watch so I’m not sure if another trip to Monterey is in my future.

If I do ever take an opportunity to come back to Monterey, I will definitely be prepared for rough seas and I would definitely go on Monterey Eco Tours and Monterey Bay Whale Watch again.

More Info

I am creating a narrated video about the hunt and will post that to my youtube page.

I will also be posting more pictures from the trip on my instagram page, facebook page, and the Wildlife Travel and Conservation facebook group.

I send a newsletter out one to two times per month.   Please sign up below for more information about Wildlife, Wildlife Conservation, and sustainable travel to wildlife rich areas around the world.

I would love your comments about this adventure or any questions!  Thank you.

Is it safe to travel during Covid?

With borders beginning to open, many people wonder if traveling is safe?   What’s the risk?   Should they / can they travel right now?  Some ask is it irresponsible to travel?

Traveling in the world today is a personal choice.   What are the risks and rewards?   I believe this varies from person to person.  For me, personally, I have read about how the people and wildlife are really suffering around the world due to lack of tourism.   Many wildlife rich countries rely on tourism for a large percentage of jobs.   The local people are really struggling to make ends meet and to feed their families.   With the lack of tourists, funding for rangers and therefore anti-poaching squads is limited at best and the wildlife is also suffering.  I chose to travel to support the tourism industy just a little and to support my own wanderlust.

I am certainly not an expert on traveling in these times, but below I detail my experience on the two trips I’ve made during Covid.   The first, a domestic trip in the USA and the other an international trip to Kenya, including a layover.

The travel requirements are changing rapidly and the information provided below is what I experienced.   Be sure to check with the destination and airline to make sure your trip happens without any glitches.

INTRA-USA

My first flight was the beginning of August on United Airlines from Chicago to Seattle.   I was upgraded to First class because of my status with United.   I thought that was a good thing as the seats are more comfortable in First class and it is a long flight.    The first class cabin was completely full while coach class was mostly empty.

I wasn’t sure what type of health checks they were going to do at the airport or how long security lines were going to be because of the policies of the employees not touching anything…so I arrived at the airport VERY early for my flight.    The airport was empty.   I checked in and got through the TSA precheck line within moments.   There were no health checks done.  No questions about symptoms.   That did make me nervous and I wish the United States would put in some flying policies to keep people safe.

All the staff at the United counter and the TSA staff were in masks.   Everyone in the main part of the airport that I saw were in masks.   I do not, however, believe that it was a requirement.   I was asked to remove my mask at TSA for a moment so they could verify the ticket matched my ID and matched my face.    There was a plastic clear screen between me and the TSA agent.    They did touch my ID and my boarding pass.   I used my hand sanitizer after putting them away.  I carried hand sanitizer, wipes, and multiple masks so I could change them if necessary.

A lot of the lounges were closed but I did find a United Club that was open.   The service was limited (usually there is a buffet of food to snack on pre-flight).   I used my hand sanitizer often.

On my outbound flight, they did have signs alerting passengers it was required to wear a mask on the plane and that they had some available if you didn’t have one.

When boarding the plane, they handed out a pre-wrapped wipe.    They also advertise that the plane is cleaned thoroughly between flights.   During the flight, several of the first class passengers moved their masks to below their noses.   This is not allowed and every time a flight attendant walked by, they would adjust their mask so they weren’t seen.   This did make me uncomfortable as there were no health checks prior to boarding.   The flight attendants made several announcements throughout the trip that is was required to wear them over the nose and mouth.

Food service was a choice of a box that you can normally buy in coach.   My seat mate bought one and so did I.   They were delivered at the same time.   As a precaution, I waited for my seat mate to eat his and put his mask back on before I took mine off to eat.   I did occassionaly take it off to drink water and again, was just conscious of when my seat mate had his off.

I used hand sanitizer often (ie. after unwrapping the plastic from the box, using the restroom, etc) and just periodically.

The Seattle airport was also not crowded.   I rented a car at Hertz.  They had a plastic screen up and lines on the floor for distancing.   The hotel near the airport was not crowded.  They had hand sanitizer everywhere.   They had the seats in the restaurant spaced apart and the wait staff was wearing masks.   Hand sanitizer was on every table as was a sign that showed a table had been sanitized.

On my return home, I again flew United and was upgraded.   This time, they made an announcement that the masks with the breathing vents were not allowed to be worn and they had masks available.   Pretty much the same thing – First class was full, coach was mostly empty.

I felt very safe on the entire trip but self-quarantined for 2 weeks on my return.   A quarantine is not mandatory in Illinois except when arriving from certain states.   I chose to limit my exposure just to make sure I didn’t come down with Covid.    After 2 weeks, I was still sympom free.

I thoroughly enjoyed my trip and for the most part was very happy with the safety procedures in place.   I felt safe the majority of the time and when in a situation that seemed risky, I made sure my own behavior was giving me the least amount of risk as possible.

International

In the middle of September, I went to Kenya.   As a wildlife enthusiast and passionate wildlife photographer, I’ve been researching the impact that the lack of tourists have been having on the animals – and it’s not good.  Many wildlife rich countries are dependent on tourism to pay the rangers.   With lack of funding, poaching has increased.   Many locals work at the lodges and in other tourism occupations.   Both the wildlife and people are really hurting due to the lack of tourism.

At the time I booked my flight, Europe was closed to American citizens.   However, many airports were allowing transit passengers from the USA. London, Paris, and Amsterdam have clearly written rules about transit passengers.   Frankfurt was allowing transit passengers from the USA but did not have clear rules and I had heard that some Americans were turned away from their flights.    After much research, I decided to fly on Qatar and I splurged for a business class seat – for 2 reasons.   1.  My camera gear weighs a lot and I had heard Qatar was very strict with their carry-on policy and their coach class policy is NOT generous (at least for a photographer) and 2. the business class has POD seats.   If you aren’t familiar with POD seats, it’s like you have your own little room with a door that closes.  The top is open for air circulation but you have no one next to you and this felt like the safest option for the long flight.

Qatar airlines has many awards and I can totally understand why!   Amazing service.

At the O’Hare international terminal, it was a little more crowded than domestic but still much emptier than on a normal travel day.

Even with the plane half empty, they enforced the carry-on rule for Coach customers.   They did not budge on the policy even when the customer was getting a bit billegerent.    I’ve had airlines question my carry-on until I show my camera gear and they have let me through.  I do not believe I would have been granted access on Qatar coach.    For business, they did not weigh or look at my carry-ons.   I did, however use a smaller back pack then usual as I was still a few pounds overweight and left some of my gear at home.  I wonder if I had my larger / normal back pack if I would have had a problem – something to look into before traveling again.

I was through security quickly (didn’t even have to wait in line) and went to the shared lounge.   The lounge had less food / drink options than non-covid days.   The seats were placed apart and although they did have a mask policy, several people were not wearing theirs.

The Qatar flight to Doha was 13.5 hours.   At each seat was a big bottle of hand sanitizer (the size of a hand lotion bottle).   On Qatar, you are required to wear a mask and a face shield.   They handed out the face shields to every customer.   They are required at all times in Coach but at your leisure in Business since you can close the POD door.    The POD was very comfortable.   I’m 5’3″ and about a size 10.   The seat was comfortable but not overly wide.   I would have enjoyed a wider seat.   I felt extremely safe with the POD door closed.   I was in a window seat which had over head bins, so there was not much space above the POD door.   In the middle seats, there are no over head compartments so there is a lot more space over the walls of the POD.   I felt cozy and secure in my POD.  I even got a pair of super soft pajamas to wear.   They too were cozy and very comfortable.

My POD on Qatar for the 13.5 hour flight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the plane, they showed a video about the Doha airport.   They showed how they were sanitizing the airport and it was impressive.  They use state of the art sanitizing robots.    They have a spa and hotel inside the secure area that looked beautiful.   Lots of shopping too.   I didn’t have too much time to explore and decided to make use of the business class lounge.   They took my temperature before I could enter.   The lounge was very spacious and bright.   Hand sanitizer available everywhere.   They had a luggage check which was very nice as my carry-ons (with camera gear) weighed over 35 pounds.   They did have self-service drinks (so I used my own sanitizer) and I believe they had food, but I didn’t eat in the lounge as my layover was short.

The business class lounge in Doha was very comfortable

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My next flight was 6 hours.  The business class had sleeper seats but no PODs.   It was a 2 x 2 configuration and they had no one seated in the aisle seats – so that was great!    I kept my mask and shield on for the entire flight.  It was surprisingly ok to sleep with the shield on.   I felt comfortable taking off my mask to eat and drink.

The business class seat for the 6 hour flight to Nairobi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upon arrival in Nairobi, we had temperature checks and had to show proof of a negative PCR Covid test that had been taken within 96 hours of the start of travel.   We also had to fill out a health form.   The risk in traveling to Kenya was if anyone had symptoms upon arrival, everyone seated within 2 rows would be quarantined for 2 weeks.   Since you had to show a negative COVID test to board the plane, I was hopeful that wouldn’t be a problem but was still quite relieved when I was through the aiport and out the other side.

I had heard from some of my contacts in Kenya that they were refusing to do at airport VISAs at random times.   So, it is best to have your VISA prior to travling, which I did.

As I had all my paperwork ready, I was through security and customs within ten minutes.   Collected my bags and was super relieved when meeting with my driver and leaving the airport.

Kenya has a tourism safety certificate because of the Covid policies they have in place.   At every hotel, a temperature check was done.   Hand sanitizer was widely available and most everyone was wearing masks.    All employees had to be tested before returning to work.  In my lodge reviews, I talk about the policies of each lodge that I visited.   The lodge reviews will be posted soon on the facebook group “Wildlife Travel and Conservation“.

Will I travel again?

I would absolutely travel again during Covid making sure to keep myself safe with masks, wipes, and hand sanitizer depending on the location and the policies and procedures they have in place.   At this time, I do not have plans to travel again until May due to photography trips being rescheduled but the wanderlust in me is strong, the wildlife and my cameras are calling… so you never know where in the world I may end up.

You can follow my journies on Instagram and Facebook as Lisa M Roberti.   You can also join my facebook group Wildlife Travel and Conservation to have conversations about both.   In the group, I post lodge reviews and daily recaps of my travels as well as wildlife wins and struggles.    If you aren’t on facebook, you can join my email list to get access to the lodge reviews and daily recaps.

As always, I would love your comments or questions below.