Day 5 – 11th May
It was now time to leave Los Angeles behind for a little while, and head up north to Monterey. I would be travelling on the Coast Starlight, another Amtrak train that goes all the way between Los Angeles and Seattle. After the previous day’s experience, I was wary of Amtrak; but not only did the train leave Union Station on time, it was about as comfortable as an eight-hour journey can be, even in coach class.
There was plenty of legroom, and the staff were very attentive. There was a cafe for snacks – I opted not to go for the dining car. You also couldn’t beat the scenery: arid and rocky not far out of the city, giving way to the beautiful blue of the Pacific, through Vandenberg Air Force Base to the rolling hills around San Luis Obispo. Adjacent to my seating area was an observation car, which not only had larger windows, but a couple of people providing commentary on the areas that the train passed through. As we approached Salinas, the hills looked familiar; I’d seen a picture on the cover of East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck was born in Salinas and spent much of his life in that area of California, while setting many of his stories there too.
The train was about half an hour late getting into Salinas, but since I had a guaranteed bus connection from there to Monterey, this hardly mattered. Soon I was checked into my hotel in the small coastal city, ready for the next day’s adventure: whale watching.
Day 6 – 12th May
It was a short walk up Alvarado Street to Fisherman’s Wharf, where Monterey Bay Whale Watch were based. At 8am, after a briefing, we got onboard the Sea Wolf II and headed out towards the open ocean, passing a large number of cormorants and barking sealions on the breakwater. I had opted for an eight-hour trip, to maximise the chances of seeing something. Mindful of the risk of sea-sickness, I’d taken some personal medication before setting out, and I was also hoping that having adjusted so quickly to sailing in Ischia five years earlier, I would be okay here too.
After about an hour and a half, we saw our first cetaceans, and plenty of them: a nursery pod of Risso’s dolphins. These dolphins, which can also be found in British waters, are recognisable by their blunt, rounded heads and the white scars they pick up as they age, both from fighting each other and wrestling with squid. With both the boat and the dolphins moving around so much, it was hard to estimate just how many there were, but the marine biologists on board reckoned there were over a hundred. They generally surfaced a few at a time, the calves easily recognisable among the larger adults.
The boat then headed off in search of humpback whales. Along the way, the wind started picking up; and unfortunately, after a few hours of feeling fine, I started feeling the effects of the choppier ride. We found several humpbacks, but I was feeling too queasy to properly appreciate most of them. I was, however, able to film a mother and calf; the calf put on quite a show, repeatedly leaping out of the water for us.
Eventually, with the wind continuing to rise, the boat headed back to harbour a little early, and I was relieved to step back onto dry land. I might not have seen any orcas that day, but at least I’d seen some whales; and while the sea-sickness had been rough, I didn’t want that to put me off trying again at some point in the future. Next time, I believe I’ll take a shorter tour, or try stronger medication.
That evening, I was hungry enough to head back to Fisherman’s Wharf to try some local food – specifically, clam chowder in a bread bowl. There were plenty of places offering it, but I ended up going with Crabby Jim’s as they were offering free samples outside. I also stopped by a nearby store to get my mum’s souvenir: a cuddly sea otter.
Day 7 – 13th May
Feeling like I had hardly stood still since getting off the plane in Los Angeles, I was ready for a rest day – but I couldn’t sit still for the entire day. I ended up taking a leisurely walk down to Cannery Row. The sun was shining brighter than it had done for most of the holiday thus far, and the path was very pleasant; if I’d had my running shoes with me, I would have taken the opportunity for a jog. Part of the walk gave a good view of the harbour, where I saw a group of sea otters, some playing, others relaxing on their backs as they are wont to do.
Cannery Row was the centre of sardine canning in Monterey until the 1950s, when the local fishing industry collapsed. It was another area that John Steinbeck was familiar with; his 1945 novel Cannery Row was the first of his books that I ever read. There is a monument on the street featuring Steinbeck, and various other characters symbolising the community: a Chinese fisherman, a madam and one of her girls, and Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist and close friend of Steinbeck’s. There was also a Bubba Gump shrimp restaurant, selling not just shrimp, but T-shirts bearing quotes from Forrest Gump.