Blue Whales For The First Time

By Barbara Oliver


   When I met my future husband, Leon Oliver, he was captain of one of the Monterey boats used for whale watching by Monterey Sport Fishing. The company, Leon and his crew already had donated proceeds from several annual whale watch trips to the Monterey chapter of ACS. Being courted aboard a fishing and whale watch boat must be one of the more unusual ways to decide to marry someone, but it's also a good way to learn about the professional side of a future husband. Even though I had grown up inland, I soon learned to help spot whales by seeing their spouts in the distance.

   One day we had a charter of insurance salesmen that wanted to see whales. My only experience "chasing blubber," as my Texan husband would say, was the previous winter watching the Gray Whales. This was in the middle of summer and I had no idea what was in store for me. We were fortunate to have Esta Lee Albright along as naturalist, one of Leon's old Coast Guard buddies, Manuel and, of course, the insurance salesmen and their wives.

   I can remember it was a typical Monterey Bay foggy day and we had been driving around trying to find some sort of marine mammal. The four of us on the topdrive were getting a little desperate when I saw them ... two of the biggest blows I had ever seen. After Leon and Esta Lee saw where I was pointing, they turned to me with very wide grins and said together, "Blue Whales."

   Well, at that time I didn't know a Blue Whale from a Humpback. I was from Sacramento and obviously clueless. (Just for the record, I have since gotten a clue and can identify most of the critters out there.)

   Still smiling, Leon turned the boat in the direction of the blows and pushed the throttle full speed ahead. We finally got into the area where Leon slowed the boat and tiptoed to the appropriate distance from the whales.

   Now, there is a local person who is one of the many characters who frequent the wharf. I have seen him many times look out in the distance with rather intoxicated eyes and say, "It's amazing what the eyes can see that the mind can't." I never knew what the samhill he was talking about until I saw those Blue Whales. I saw them come up and blow and watched their backs go on forever. I had never seen anything so big. My brain couldn't comprehend what I was seeing. Finally, both of the whales raised their enormous heads, and, as they sounded, they threw their flukes. Again, since this was my first look at a Blue whale, I wasn't aware that this behavior was unusual, but it explained why Leon and Esta Lee were going crazy. And, their flukes were absolutely beautiful.

   Then we waited. At this point I decided to go down on the deck. I observed several things. Most of the women had very large diamonds, which might explain the price of our premiums. I saw one rather pale woman in the lounge. Actually, pale green might be a more correct color. Everyone else was having fun. I ran back upstairs and waited. Leon had turned the engines off, so it was quiet. And we waited.

   Most everyone was looking out to see where the whales were going to come up, but I was looking down at some of the rocks on several of the hands of several women on the deck below. Because I was being nosy, I saw it first. Just like a submarine, the whale came up parallel with the boat, five feet from us. The boat, Magnum Force, is seventy feet long. This whale was longer than the boat. It also looked wider. You could have had a dance with twenty people on its head! The blow was so big and so loud. None of us could speak. Our mouths were wide open. We saw the entire whale from its head to its tail. I still couldn't get my mind to comprehend what I was looking at. It slowly swam around the bow and, as it did, we could see it was looking at us. I saw its eye! I don't think any of us were breathing. It went around the entire bow, blew again and sounded.

   With mouths still open we finally caught our breath. Then we were all talking at once. How can I describe to you what we saw? I don't think it's possible. Even the people down on the deck from inland places knew they had seen something special.

   Time had run out and Leon turned the boat for home. As we were leaving, we got one more treat from those magnificent creatures. the whales were coming up and blowing. Riding their wakes were about a dozen Dall's Porpoises. I've seen porpoises and dolphins ride a boat's wake, but never a whale's wake. It was unbelievable. And beautiful.

   That trip was eleven years ago. I have been on many summer whale watches since, but I never tire of seeing the Blues. I would encourage anyone who hasn't done a summer trip, such as the one for ACS Monterey Bay, to go. It will be a trip you will never forget.


Soundings   Special 20th Anniversary Issue   Summer 2000