Up The Road: Monterey Bay

Dec 6, 2017

We head up the road this week to Monterey Bay.

The only remembered line of the Ohlone people’s long-lost song of world renewal, “dancing on the brink of the world,” has a particularly powerful resonance at the edge of Monterey Bay. Here, in the unfriendly fog and ghostly cypress along the brink, the untamed coast, we know native people once danced. Yet like that ancient dance and its dancers, Monterey Bay largely remains a mystery: everything seen, heard, tasted, and touched only hints at what remains hidden.

Humpback whales in Monterey Bay
Credit Monterey Bay Aquarium

One thing we can see is that magnificent Monterey Bay is a half-moon almost 60 miles long and 13 miles across at its widest. If you could instantly suck out the water, the naked, newborn landscape would be as stunning as some of the nation’s most dramatic national parks, complete with deep valleys, spires, and steep cliffs. Unlike parks, what you’d see if you came back a few months later might be quite different. Researchers have discovered through ongoing underwater mapping that the seascape is constantly shape-shifting due to debris flows and sediment-carrying currents. Take a peek via underwater maps from the federal government’s Monterey Bay maps from the California State Waters Map Series.

Monterey Bay’s submerged valleys are among the deepest on the continent’s entire West Coast, and, in their midwater and upper reaches, incredibly rich in sealife. We’re familiar with the top of the offshore food chains, the whales, sharks, dolphins, seals, and sea otters, and transfixed by the less familiar—bioluminescent fish glowing vivid blue to red, giant squid, tiny octopi, tentacle-shedding jellyfish, and countless microscopic plants and animals.

Common octopus, using suckers to stick around
Credit Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay is magical, one of the most biologically prolific spots on the planet. Swaying with the ocean’s motion, dense thickets of giant kelp—a type of algae that can grow up to two feet per day—provide food and shelter for sea lions, seals, sea otters, and giant Garibaldi “goldfish.” Opal-eyed perch in schools of hundreds swim by leopard sharks and bottom fish. In the understory, near the rocky ocean floor, live abalones, anemones, crabs, sea urchins, and starfish. We are impressed by the beautiful and the exotic, but rarely think to appreciate the phytoplankton near the ocean’s surface which produce more than half the world’s oxygen capture carbon, and convert sunlight and inorganic matter into the organic compounds—food—that support all ocean life.

Another way to “see” the bay is by visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, looking out at the bay, which supports sealife conservation, conducts research, and offers experiential public education.
Credit Monterey Bay Aquarium

In the darkest depths of Monterey Bay’s canyons, where temperatures are close to freezing, the weirdest mysteries abide. Some critters of the deep have very small bodies and move slowly, to minimize their need for food, which is scarce. Certain fish evolve giant gills to absorb extra oxygen. Strange, carnivorous sea sponges grab what they can. Entire biological communities, plants and animals, rely on methane or other chemicals seeping up from the ocean floor for energy production, because sunlight doesn’t penetrate this dark, so photosynthesis is not possible.

Students of Monterey Canyon geology quibble over the origins of this mysterious system of underwater valleys. 

Egg-yolk jellyfish
Credit Monterey Bay Aquarium

Computer-generated models of canyon creation suggest that the land here was once near Bakersfield, and was carved out by the Colorado River; later it shifted westward due to plate tectonics. More conventional speculation focuses on the creative forces of both the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, which perhaps once emptied at Elkhorn Slough near Moss Landing, Monterey Canyon’s principal “head.”

However Monterey Canyon came to be, it is now centerpiece of the 5,312-square-mile Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary which extends some 400 miles along the coast, from San Francisco’s Golden Gate and the Farallon Islands in the north to San Simeon in the south.

As an indirect result of its federal protection, Monterey Bay now boasts many marine research facilities. And it’s no coincidence that one of the remote operated vehicles used underwater by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute is named the Doc Ricketts, after John Steinbeck’s good friend, philosopher-biologist Ed Ricketts, memorialized in Steinbeck’s books as “Doc.”