The “Serengeti of the Sea” – Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

by Debi Love Shearwater of Shearwater Journeys, Inc.

Sabine's Gulls, Monterey Bay © Beth Hamel:Shearwater Journeys

Sabine’s Gulls, Monterey Bay © Beth Hamel:Shearwater Journeys

Monterey Bay is considered the number one destination for North American pelagic trips, and many marine ecologists rate Monterey Bay as the most productive pelagic habitat—worldwide. What exactly defines productivity? In a word, food! From tiny zooplankton to schools of anchovies the size of Manhattan, Monterey Bay provides an abundance of food for tens of thousands of Sooty Shearwaters and the mighty Blue Whale. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary is often called the “Serengeti of the Sea,” stretching 276 miles along California’s central coast, from San Francisco to Cambria. The sanctuary includes pristine beaches, lush kelp beds, steep canyons, and an offshore seamount.

Massive flocks of Sooty Shearwaters, Monterey Bay, California. June 20, 2014 © Debi Shearwater

Massive flocks of Sooty Shearwaters, Monterey Bay, California. June 20, 2014 © Debi Shearwater


Monterey Bay is bisected by a stunning submarine canyon which reaches within a few hundred meters of shore, near Moss Landing. This mile-deep canyon is similar in size and shape to the Grand Canyon. Indeed, one marine biologist stated, “If it were not filled up with water, we’d all be riding little donkeys down into it.” The combination of the southbound California Current and the upwelling of nutrient-rich cold waters from the submarine canyon sustains one of the world’s richest ecosystems.

Arctic Tern, Monterey Bay © Beth Hamel:Shearwater Journeys

Arctic Tern, Monterey Bay © Beth Hamel:Shearwater Journeys


The absolute prime time for seabirds is fall—late July through November—and September is the single best month of the entire year. Birders can expect to see a wide diversity of seabirds and marine mammals during September. Taking back-to-back Monterey Bay trips will increase one’s overall species list, and adding a pelagic trip departing from Half Moon Bay increases the odds of observing even more species. Generally, fall trips are very calm, making Monterey Bay the ideal starting point for the beginning seabirder. Advanced seabirders should note that Monterey Bay continues to crank out the rarest of the rare sightings!

Red Phalaropes, Monterey Bay © Beth Hamel:Shearwater Journeys

Red Phalaropes, Monterey Bay © Beth Hamel:Shearwater Journeys


The sanctuary provides habitat for 34 species of marine mammals and 94 species of seabirds. Regularly occurring fall seabirds include: Black-footed Albatross; Northern Fulmar; Pink-footed, Flesh-footed, Buller’s, Sooty, Short-tailed, and Black-vented Shearwaters; Wilson’s, Ashy, and Black Storm-Petrels; Brown Pelican; Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorants; Red-necked and Red Phalaropes; Pomarine, Parasitic, and Long-tailed Jaegers; South Polar Skua; Heermann’s, California, Western, and Sabine’s Gulls; Elegant, Common, and Arctic Terns; Common Murre; Pigeon Guillemot; Marbled (Half Moon Bay only), Scripps’s, Guadalupe, Craveri’s, and Ancient (late fall) Murrelets; Cassin’s and Rhinoceros Auklets; and Tufted Puffin.


Monterey is a mecca for uncommon and rarely spotted seabirdsmany first North American records have been set here. For example, our boat once observed eight shearwater species on one tripthe highest number of shearwaters ever recorded in one place. Birds seen occasionally or rarely include: Laysan, Short-tailed, and Salvin’s Albatrosses; Hawaiian, Great-winged, White-chinned, Murphy’s, Cook’s, Stejneger’s, and Bulwer’s Petrels; Streaked, Great, Wedge-tailed, and Manx Shearwaters; Fork-tailed, Leach’s, Least, and Wedge-rumped Storm-Petrels; Red-billed and Red-tailed Tropicbirds; Masked, Brown, and Red-footed Boobies; Magnificent and Great Frigatebirds; Black-legged Kittiwake (winter); Thick-billed Murre; and Horned Puffin.


California Sea Lion, Monterey harbor © Beth Hamel:Shearwater Journeys

California Sea Lion, Monterey harbor © Beth Hamel:Shearwater Journeys

Whales and dolphins are a thrilling sight for many birders who venture offshore. Many whale species have made a major recovery over the past four decades, especially the Humpback Whale. A good pelagic trip encompasses all interesting marine life. Commonly sighted marine mammals include: Blue and Humpback Whales (in fall) and Gray Whale (in winter); Pacific White-sided, Northern Right Whale, Bottlenose, and Risso’s Dolphins; Dall’s and Harbor Porpoises; Sea Otter; California and Steller’s Sea Lions; Harbor and Northern Elephant Seals; and Northern Fur Seal. Less frequently seen mammals include: Minke, Fin, Sperm, Baird’s Beaked, Short-finned Pilot, and Killer Whales; and Short-beaked and Long-beaked Common Dolphins. Other marine life could include: Ocean Sunfish; Blue, Mako, and Salmon Sharks; various jellies and invertebrates; Leatherback Sea Turtle, and rarely, Loggerhead Turtle.

Killer Whale © Debi Shearwater

Killer Whale © Debi Shearwater


Most pelagic trips for birders operate on fixed schedules that require advance booking. The operator will typically send an information sheet as to how to dress and what to bring. In a normal fall season, temperatures are quite cool offshore. A warm jacket and lunch are essential. It is always best to study the seabirds and marine mammals prior to the trip. Check the operator’s web site for past trip reports to get an idea of species recorded.

It is always best to join a dedicated pelagic trip provided by a birding company. Look for a good ratio of leaders to guests, because that provides the highest quality experience. If a trip is not available on the desired date, the next best thing is to join one of the many short whale-watching vessels that depart from Monterey. Although whale watching trips are offered year-round, none of these focuses specifically on seabirds.


About the author:

Debi Shearwater, owner of Shearwater Journeys, Inc., has operated West Coast pelagic trips for more than forty years and is a leading expert in global seabirding.

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