46 Whales? Really?

My wife, the Skye dog and I took the Decathlon up north Monterey way in January. The nearly four hour flight happened because my wife’s car’s transmission decided that it was no longer interested in shifting along the highway, but, fortunately, we were 25 miles from our destination when it announced its frustration. We limped the Explorer into the lot at the Monterey Beach Resort in Seaside, CA, called the dealer, called the warranty company and managed to limp the car to the nearby Ford garage 10 minutes before they closed for the Christmas holiday.

Weeks intervened before the rebuilt tranny had shipped to the dealer and a few more weeks intervened before my wife’s work schedule allowed the return sojourn.

Now you should know that in 1972, Bellanca didn’t know much about ergonomics and designed a seat that was comfortable for one hour – not four. I understand that the airplane is aerobatic and that most aerobatic flights end before an hour is up, but you’d still hope that an airplane seat would remain comfortable for longer than an hour. That hope, of course, was dashed.

We flew up at 4500’ and traversed LA’s Bravo via the Special Flight Rules Area. We turned west at SMO, flew up over Ventura VORTAC, and then, more or less, direct to San Luis Obispo. We fueled at SBP, stretched our legs, rubbed our bums, let the Skye dog take care of her needs and departed. We flew west northwesterly reaching the coast at MorroBay. That’s where the fun began.

I opted for flight following with Santa Barbara Approach Control out of SBP and they handed me off to a delightful controller employed at OaklandCenter. This woman was polite and professional, but wasn’t afraid to have some fun as well – a delight in the usually uptight world of northern California controllers. She asked if we were aware that the restricted areas were hot, and we advised that we’d be avoiding them like the plague. She replied that some of my pilot colleagues had not, and were soon to be ruing their transgressions.

Passing politely overhead San Simeon, William Randolph Hurst’s fairy tale castle, at 4500 feet, she advised that we may be out of touch as we approached the Big Sur, VFR flight still being line-of sight communication. She also provided the next freq in case we lost touch – and, of course, at that altitude we did.

Now some folks get nervous along the Big Sur – there is certainly a dearth of landing spots. Mountainsides generally don’t offer much flat terrain, the beaches are usually very small and the rocks make for a really harsh landing spot. Nevertheless, we chose the coastline and oh-my-we were surely rewarded.

Laurel – she’s the one who has rarely caught sight of whales though growing up and spending nearly all her life in CA – saw a couple of migrating Gray Whales approaching VTU, but she nearly lost count over the next hour. Pods of three, four and five followed pods of two, three and four. ‘Twas a Gray Whale Superhighway. Whales to the right of us, whales to the left of us, whales below us. I stopped looking because my neck started aching. Approaching Carmel, she had totaled forty whales and, by the time we were talking to MRY Tower, the number reached forty-five. Setting up for a wide right downwind for 28R we both spotted number forty-six: a great big Blue Whale ½ mile off shore Seaside and the beach in front of the Beach Resort.

The girl who never saw whales was overwhalemed. (Sorry – couldn’t resist.) My year of instructing and air touring in Kona on the BigIsland allowed lotsa views of the Humpbacks who come to play, mate and spawn in Hawai’i each January to April. But the most whales I’d ever seen on one flight were thirty-six. I was delighted that Laurel had beaten that record.

The folks at MontereyJetCenter were delightfully accommodating and cheerfully drove Laurel and the Skye dog to the Ford Dealer – Cypress Coast Ford Lincoln Mercury, really good people to deal with – and I hung out, stretching legs, snacking on a cookie or two and waiting fuel.

I wasn’t keen on the nearly 4 hour return trip, but I wasn’t spending the night, so, after refueling, off I went. I advised MRYTower that I wanted a short turn north up the coast after departure and they accommodated. Just offshore at 1000 feet, I spied the Skye dog bounding in and out of the waves at Seaside, rocked the wings really hard for Laurel, and resumed the long ride home. Hers was longer – 8 hours in the Explorer – but she had Skye along for the ride and all I had was the memory of 46 Gray Whales. Not a bad trade off.

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