Monterey Bay on California's central coast rests atop one of the largest underwater canyons in the world. It's deeper than the Grand Canyon, making it possible for lots of ocean life — including humpback whales, orcas, dolphins and sea lions — to be seen extremely close to shore. That is, given the right circumstances. Lately, the right circumstances have converged, and there's more marine and wildlife in the bay than anyone's seen in recent memory.
Steve Palumbi is director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station, where the university's students study the ocean. The marine lab sits practically on the bay, and Palumbi says it's hard sometimes to keep his students' attention when a pod of whales or dolphins comes swimming by the window.
"You just have to stop your lecture and let the ocean get over that," he says.
Every spring something called "upwelling" begins in Monterey Bay. Winds from the north force the deep, cold water in the bay to "well" to the surface. "This cold water is also nutrient-rich," Palumbi tells Morning Edition's Renee Montagne, "and it brings natural fertilizer in to make the ocean ecosystem bloom."
Then there's the chain reaction, he says. "Plankton blooms, the plankton-feeding fish like anchovies feed and grow hugely, and that sparks the whole ecosystem to thrive. Essentially, we get serial dining of the plankton and the anchovies and then the bigger fish and then the seals, the whales — all the way up the food chain."
The upwelling was a little higher than usual last year, says Palumbi. Then, the anchovies hung around longer than normal.
Then, in late March, this year's upwelling season began with particularly strong winds "that have started our season to just an amazing degree," Palumbi says.
Now the bay is like an "ocean buffet — open for business."
Although this influx is unprecedented in recent times, Palumbi tells Montagne, it was probably normal 200 years ago.
"Early westerners who came to Monterey Bay wrote about the incredible abundance of wildlife of every kind and every description, but then, subsequently, we took the otters for their fur, we took the whales for their oil ... [and] the sardines for their meat and fish meal."
During the height of Monterey's canning industry in the '30s and '40s, fish guts, heads and scales were routinely dumped into the bay. Palumbi says that, in those days, you never saw whales in Monterey Bay.
"People started caring more and more about the bay and, especially the last 30 years, protection of the sea birds, marine mammals and the fish species have really combined to allow this boom of wildlife."
When Nancy Black, owner of tour company Monterey Bay Whale Watch, moved to the area in 1986, the population of humpback whales was thought to be around 400. She says now it's more than 2,000.
Palumbi, of Hopkins Marine Station and author of the new book The Extreme Life of the Sea, says we're used to hearing about ecosystems being degraded and falling apart. Monterey Bay is one place where the reverse is happening.
And there are lessons to be learned, he says as he points to three fishing boats in sight: "How important it is not only for there to be lots of biological diversity, but also lots of economic diversity. ... So, instead of the local economy sucking the ecosystem dry — eating it, as it were — the local economy is based on the bay thriving."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. On California's central coast in Monterey Bay, there's a lot more chatter these days.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHATTER)
STEVE PALUMBI: A population explosion of marine and wildlife began last summer. And it's become even more pronounced in the last few weeks. Here's what Steve Palumbi was seeing one recent morning from a spot called China Point.
Right now in view are seabirds sitting on the rocks. There's seal lions basking themselves, sea lions. There's a little cormorant fishing there in the middle of a kelp forest. I don't see any whales this second, but we often see them. We'll see pods of dolphins going by.
MONTAGNE: Steve Palumbi is Director of Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station there. Below Monterey Bay is one of the largest underwater canyons in the world. It's miles deep, making it possible for everything from Orcas to anchovies to thrive and for bigger creatures like humpback whales and dolphins come pretty close to shore.
Still, this new influx of species is unprecedented in recent times. Though Palumbi told us it was probably normal centuries ago.
PALUMBI: More than 200 years ago the people - early westerners who came in to Monterey wrote about the incredible abundance of wildlife of every kind and every description, but then subsequently, we took the otters for their fur, we took the whales for their oil. We took the sardines for their meat and fish meal, and we sort of stripped out the wildlife of Monterey Bay.
But about 80 years ago that turned around. People started caring more and more about the bay and its ecosystem, and especially over the last 30 years protections of the sea birds, and marine mammals and the fish species have really combined to allow this boom of wildlife that 200 years ago would be natural but we don't really see very much anymore.
MONTAGNE: And recently I gather there's one more element that helped this boom along and that had to do with winds.
PALUMBI: Yes. And so in Monterey the deep water here allows something called upwelling to happen quite a lot. So water that is very deep in the ocean is cold. It's also nutrient rich. In places like Monterey it wells up to the suface, bringing natural fertilizer in to make the ocean ecosystems bloom.
Plankton blooms, the plankton feeding fish like the anchovies feed and grow hugely and then that sparks the whole ecosystem to be able to thrive. And essentially we get serial dining of the plankton and the anchovies and then the bigger fish and the seals and the whales, et cetera, all the way up the food chain.
So that upwelling is actually pushed along by winds. And the last couple of weeks we've had these very, very, very strong winds that has started our upwelling season to just an amazing degree.
MONTAGNE: So is this a blip? Or does this suggest something new?
PALUMBI: This is not a blip. The upwelling winds we had just started our normal season. The anchovies have been here for six months or so. And what we see, Renee, here that is really kind of unique along the West Coast is a reassembling of the ecosystem that was natural. What we're used to hearing about is ecosystems being degraded and falling apart and this is one place where the reverse is happening.
MONTAGNE: For you is this a question of lessons learned?
PALUMBI: For me, this is a question of lessons learned about a wide variety of things, not just the marine life. The lessons learned include how important it is not only for there to be lots of biological diversity, but actually lots of economic diversity. Where I'm standing now there's three fishing boats within view.
The fishing industry here is still thriving. It's still going on. There's also a big tourism industry. There's also a lot of people who just like to live here and so instead of the local economy sucking ecosystem dry, eating it as it were, instead, the local economy is really based upon the ecosystem of the bay thriving.
MONTAGNE: Well, enjoy the beautiful day and thank you much for talking with us.
PALUMBI: Bye-bye, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Steve Palumbi is Director of the Hopkins Marine Station on Monterey Bay here in California. His new book is "The Extreme Life of the Sea."
(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.